On the surface, the European Parliament election results in France and the United Kingdom look quite similar. In both, a maverick right-wing Euroskeptic party won a comfortable quarter of the votes, polling ahead of the leading opposition party and leaving the party in power in third place. In both, gains by those nationalist protest parties were also reflected in local elections. In both, a senior opposition political figure has been compelled to resign. In both, the national leader has declared that the European Union—“Brussels”—must show more respect for national preferences and national prerogatives.
Yet despite these apparent parallels, the political effects of the European Parliament elections in Britain and France turn out to be quite different—and leave France and its current leadership with knottier challenges.
The far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by the hooray-Henry figure Nigel Farage, achieved 28 percent of the European Parliament vote, up more than 10 percentage points from five years ago, and elected twenty-four members of the European Parliament (MEPs), eleven more than before. The Labor Party, currently in opposition to the coalition of Conservatives (Tories) and Liberal Democrats (LibDems), won twenty MEP seats with 25 percent of the vote, ahead of the Tories, who got 23 percent of the vote and nineteen MEP seats. By far the biggest losers, however, were the LibDems, who managed only 7 percentage points of the vote, half of their total five years before, and lost all but one of their previous dozen MEP positions.
In Britain, local elections and the European Parliamentary elections occurred on the same day last week. UKIP gained 155 local councilor seats and Labor was up 288 while the Conservatives lost 198 and, once again, the LibDems took the biggest beating, down 283 seats.
Given these results, a senior LibDem figure, Lord Oakeshott, called upon Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to leave as head of the party. Clegg had appeared weepy and weary after the election results but recovered his nerve and refused to go. Although Lord Oakeshott is closely associated with the LibDem politician Vince Cable, currently the business secretary in the coalition government, Cable managed to distance himself from suspicions that he was behind the plot to oust Clegg, with the result that Lord Oakeshott himself has resigned while both Clegg and Cable stay on.
In an odd twist, all these developments may actually benefit Prime Minister David Cameron as he heads into a general election a year from now. A survey by Lord Ashcroft, formerly vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, published last week, revealed Cameron to be in a surprisingly strong position. While only 29 percent of voters support the Conservatives, as opposed to 38 percent in 2010, and 41 percent prefer Labor (37 percent in 2010), the drop in LibDem support from 17 to 8 percent has mostly gone to UKIP which has risen from 4 percent in 2010 to 18 percent now. The reality is that UKIP is not at all a party of government: Farage is too quirky, the party is accused of being semi-racist or at least very Little England and despite UKIP’s showing in the local elections, the party controls not a single local council and has not a single seat in the Parliament at Westminster.
The same survey by Lord Ashcroft also revealed that the off-putting personality and style of the Labor leader, Ed Miliband, sharply limit the possibility of Labor winning the national election in 2015. While 29 percent of voters prefer Miliband and a similar 29 percent prefer Cameron for the post of prime minister, an additional 28 percent say that although they are dissatisfied with Cameron, they still would prefer him to Ed Miliband. In other words, Cameron has the same satisfaction rating as Miliband but benefits from an equally big dissatisfaction-with-Miliband rating that doubles Cameron’s overall rating to 57 percent. The virtually total meltdown of the LibDems means that the Conservatives alone will face Labor and, because UKIP voters are largely thought to be Tory defectors and UKIP has no credibility to govern, Cameron can try to pick up UKIP votes by proclaiming that “a vote for UKIP is a vote for Miliband.”
The UK has been Euroskeptic for a long time and always a centrifugal force in EU, pulling Europe outward, a believer in subsidiarity not centralized power in Brussels, favoring enlargement over deepening. Cameron himself has promised an in-out referendum on British EU membership if the Conservatives win the next election. So it was comparatively easy for Cameron to go to Brussels, to the meeting of the heads of state and government on the Tuesday following the European Parliament election, and say that the EU “cannot just shrug off these results” and that it is “too big, too bossy, too interfering.”
Contrast this with France.
In the European Parliament elections, the National Front led the field with 25 percent of the vote and won twenty-four seats. Behind the National Front came the opposition UMP (conservative) party with 21 percent of the vote and twenty seats. The ruling Socialists polled third, with 14 percent of the vote and thirteen seats, a much worse showing that the in-power Conservatives in Britain. The French UDI (centrist conservatives) achieved 10 percent of the vote and seven seats; in a national election it is conceivable that the UDI, a splinter group of the UMP, could reunite to form a more powerful conservative bloc. In France, in contrast to Britain where the junior partner in the coalition was the big loser, it is the ruling Socialist party which polled extremely badly and achieved the dubious distinction of attracting a full 10 percentage points of votes less than the record-low approval rating of François Hollande, the president of the Republic, himself former secretary-general of the Socialist Party.
Local elections in France took place in late March and also represented a huge setback for the Socialists, who lost 151 cities and towns of over 10,000 inhabitants to right-wing parties (UMP, UDI, and “other right” combined), which thereupon controlled 572 such towns and cities, compared to 349 for the Socialists. However, the National Front achieved actual government representation, unlike UKIP in Britain, by winning the local elections in nine such bigger towns and cities. Following these municipal elections, President François Hollande replaced his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, by appointing the then-interior minister, Manuel Valls, as Ayrault’s replacement, but the new cabinet looked much like its predecessor.
Despite winning well in local elections and performing reasonably well in the European Parliament elections, the UMP, as the leading conservative party in France, has been and remains in serious political disarray. Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing president who lost to François Hollande two years ago, has been hovering like a cloud over the party he once led and represented. His shadow has stymied any bid for new party leadership. One of his protégés, Jean-François Copé, was designated head of the party, but Copé, a bit like Miliband in Britain, is politically competent but personally unappealing to voters.
Worse still, Copé has been forced to resign this week as head of the UMP in a scandal that reportedly results from improper billing of the UMP by a public relations firm during Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. The UMP party incurred big debts because the French Constitutional Council refused to approve government funding for Sarkozy’s campaign expenses which came in above the officially authorized budget and, it now turns out, may actually have been artificially inflated. This tarnishes both Copé as UMP leader and Sarkozy as a potential future candidate for the presidency he lost. Unlike Labor in the UK, the UMP in France has provided virtually no organized, united opposition since two years ago when Hollande was elected president and the Socialists carried parliament.
Now the UMP is to be governed by a triumvirate of former prime ministers: François Fillon, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and Alain Juppé. Fillon and Juppé themselves are both potential contenders for the UMP presidential nomination so the principal opposition party in France, instead of having an uncharismatic leader as in Britain, has no single leader at all, but multiple leaders in probable opposition to each other.
The National Front may not yet be equipped to be a party of government, just as UKIP is not, but it is a vastly more organized and credible political movement in the eyes of many French people. UKIP was started in 1993 as an anti-Maastricht Treaty Euroskeptic party and its founder Alan Sked recently complained publicly that Farage had taken it away from its initial tolerant libertarian roots. The National Front was founded two decades earlier, in 1972, by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who built the party into enough of a force to run second in the presidential election of 2002, when Le Pen defeated the outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and faced the incumbent President Jacques Chirac in the final round of the presidential election. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, took over the party reins from her father in 2011 and has succeeded in giving the party a softer and less scary image.
France cannot play the same cat-and-mouse game in Brussels that Britain can. The National Front has stirred anti-European sentiment in France, but no French government can challenge the legitimacy of the European project, which has been French-led from the start. On the contrary, Germany needs France as the indispensable partner in the building of the future Europe—whatever the vision for that future might be—and there is no scope for France to abdicate that responsibility. At the moment, however, the French president, his government, and his political party are so beleaguered that it is questionable how much they have to offer Germany. When President François Hollande made his own protestations at the heads of state and government meeting in Brussels, he had to be much more circumspect than Cameron, saying it was not for France to solve Europe’s ills, but for Europe to do it, and that the EU needed to “pay attention” to events in his country.
France and its leaders are thus in a much tighter spot than the British. And while the UK elections are only a year away, Hollande and his government have to live with these pressures for the next three years. Look for Cameron to press every possible advantage, including in Europe, including against Hollande and France. To whom Hollande can turn for solace is an open question.
Where France and the UK come together, though, is on the need for Europe to offer the prospect of jobs and growth. By far the biggest feeders of UKIP and the Front National are individual people’s worries about their own welfare and that of their children. That is the appeal of those parties’ anti-immigration rhetoric, knee-jerk nationalism, and intolerance of others—precisely the opposite of the values that the European Union has stood for from the very beginning.
Nicholas Dungan is a senior fellow in the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council and a senior adviser to the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris.