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EUROPEAN ELECTIONS

EXPLAINED: What’s at stake for France and Macron in the EU elections?

There's a great deal at stake in this weekend's crucial European elections for France and its President Emmanuel Macron. Hence why Donald Trump's former strategist Steve Bannon is getting involved.

EXPLAINED: What's at stake for France and Macron in the EU elections?
Photo: AFP

The European elections are fast approaching and no doubt French President Emmanuel Macron is keeping an eager on the polls as the threat of a win for Marine Le Pen's far right Rassemblement National (National Rally) seems increasingly plausible. 

On Sunday, political tensions soared in France just one week ahead of the tightly-contested elections, with Macron's party expressing unease over the presence of Donald Trump's controversial ex-strategist Steve Bannon. 

Bannon had told the newspaper Le Parisien on Saturday he had chosen to come to France as its election was “by far” the most important of all the European parliament polls in EU member states.

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Why young French people don't care about the European electionsPhoto: stevanovicigor/Depositphotos

The head of the LREM campaign, Stephane Sejourne, on Twitter accused Bannon of coming to Paris and staying at a luxury hotel with the aim of helping Le Pen's party win.

But why is Macron and his party so concerned about losing the upcoming European elections?

Macron's vision for Europe

Political experts argue that a loss for Macron's party and a victory for the far right would show that his people do not support their leader's vision for Europe. And the French president has made no secret of the fact that he would like to create a deeper, stronger EU. 

Should Macron's La Republique En Marche (LREM) party fall behind the RN in the polls, it would be a major blow for the president whose supporters see him as Europe's centrist saviour against the surge of the far right across the continent.

Steve Bannon described the poll as a referendum on Macron and his vision for Europe, predicting an “earthquake” next Sunday.

And he isn't the only one who feels that way. 

“If the French do not vote for Macron's party in the European elections, it will be hard to convince anybody to follow his agenda for Europe,” said Bruno Cautrès, French political analyst from the Cevipof think tank. 

A win for the far right “would show the French now have a very pessimistic attitude towards the EU,” he said, adding that despite the polls all is not lost for Macron's party.

“A win for the Rassemblement National seems more plausible as time goes on but there are many among the electorate who have not chosen who to vote for yet,” he said, adding that according to the latest figures 40-45 percent of French people are planning to vote in the election.

That's compared to 44 percent in the last European elections in 2014 and 74.5 percent in the presidential elections two years ago.  

What you need to know about voting in the crucial European electionsPhoto: AFP

Turnout

While the French might not be about to turn out at the polls in the droves, Cautrès said that “doesn't mean the French aren't interested in the EU.”

“The French are interested in the European Union,” he said, adding that according to a recent poll 36 percent of French people said they were “very interested” in the election campaign and 38 percent said they were “mostly interested”. 

So, why this disparity between how the country feels about the EU and how many are likely to vote?

Cautrès says there are a few reasons for this, one of which is that the European elections are “very complicated”. 

“Once you've elected someone it can be hard to understand exactly what their role is in the European parliament. This is still true in spite of the fact the European elections have been going on for 40 years.”

Some have said that young French voters are particularly disillusioned with the European elections, with fewer than one in four of planning to vote in them. 

Several reasons for this have been suggested, including that young people in France are pessimistic about the future of Europe and that they don't see Europe as necessarily as glamorous as America and Australia, however Cautrès said that it's important to avoid looking at young French people “as all the same”. 

“Young people who are unemployed or living in a rural area are more likely to see the EU as failing them whereas those who are more prosperous and living in cities are far less likely to feel that way.” 

Does the result really matter?

Some believe that a win for Marine Le Pen's party would mean very much at all – after all, the previous incarnation of the National Rally party – the National Front – won the European elections back in 2014. 

“Given the anti-Macron mood of much of the country, Marine Le Pen's own party's performance in this European campaign has been limp and unthreatening. She has failed to make electoral gains from the Gilets Jaunes movement,” writes veteran France correspondent John Lichfield for The Local.
 
“But this year is not a normal year. A defeat for the President on 26 May, however narrow, would bolster claims by Gilets Jaunes and others that Macron is somehow an accidental and illegitimate president. It might reignite what appears to be a fading Yellow Vest rebellion.”

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EUROPEAN ELECTIONS

Down but not out: Macron eyes shakeup of European parliament

French President Emmanuel Macron tasted defeat in the European elections, but not disaster, and is set to continue pushing both his pro-EU agenda and a realignment of parties in the European Parliament.

Down but not out: Macron eyes shakeup of European parliament
Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party finished second behind the far-right National Rally (RN) of his arch-rival Marine Le Pen, but the two parties ended up with less than 1.0 percentage point separating them — on 22.41 percent and 23.31 percent respectively.
   
The vote was seen as a test for Macron domestically after months of anti-government “yellow vest” protests, while his credibility in Europe as a champion of deeper integration was also judged to be on the line.
   
“A disappointment, but not a defeat for the Elysee,” headlined Le Parisien newspaper on Monday, while an editorial in the Les Echos business daily said Macron's party was “resisting well” two years after his election.
   
Macron on Monday held a meeting of key figures from the LREM — including Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the head of its list for the EU polls Nathalie Loiseau — to discuss the “next steps”, a presidential source said.
 
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EU election ANALYSIS: Cut the hysteria, Le Pen is not on her way to French presidencyPhoto: AFP

The 41-year-old's priority will now be trying to increase his influence in the European Parliament where LREM and its centrist allies will send 23 MEPs, the same number as Le Pen's RN.

His long-standing objective is to redraw the political map of the EU parliament, long dominated by the centre-right EPP grouping and the centre-left S&D — in the same way as he broke the stranglehold of France's traditional parties.
   
Macron's EU-level partners, who form the ALDE group, finished third in Sunday's polls, but the French leader is now aiming to broaden the coalition to include new partners, particularly Greens who made major gains.
   
“The group that we are going to join is going to be a swing group which will try to be a driver in the creation of a progressive alliance. Why not with the Greens?”, French government spokesman Sibeth Ndiaye told BFM television on Monday.
   
She added that ALDE would be renamed.
   
On Monday night, Macron will hold talks in Paris with victorious Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez whose Socialist party is set to become the biggest member of the S&D grouping after topping polls in Spain.
   
“At the European level, the president is still manoeuvring to form a large progressive alliance, a force that will be essential in the new parliament,” an aide to the French leader told AFP on Sunday.
 
Tricky Greens?
 
But Macron's ambitions, like his broader agenda for new EU initiatives, are likely to face resistance and it is far from certain that he can repeat his feat of fracturing Europe's centre-right and centre-left parties, as he did in France.
   
In a sign of the difficulties in proposing a deal with the Greens, influential and outspoken Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts appeared to rule out an alliance on Sunday, saying that Macron “couldn't give a shit” about the environment.
   
Lamberts, co-leader of the Greens, delivered a caustic speech to Macron when he visited the European Parliament in April last year, saying he had betrayed France's values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
   
Some analysts see the ALDE grouping as increasing its influence in the new parliament, but as remaining a distinct group along with the Greens.
   
“Centrists and liberals are now strong enough to say to the EPP and S&D, you need to work with us and organise a four-way coalition,” Sebastien Maillard from the Jacques Delors Institute, a think-tank, told AFP.
 
By AFP's Adam Plowright
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