As France’s National Rally (RN) party eyes power and efforts are made to form a 'Patriots for Europe' alliance, Foreign Editor David Pratt examines whether anyone is listening to the alarm bells ringing over the rise of the far right

FOR some time now – years in fact – the warnings have been coming thick and fast. Somehow, however, the prevailing belief was that the rallying of political forces to keep the right far from the levers of power – known in France as a cordon sanitaire (or firewall) – would suffice to hold such forces at bay.

But today, as France goes to the polls in a cliffhanger runoff parliamentary election that could see Marine Le Pen’s far-right, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration National Rally (RN) leading a French government for the first time since the Second World War, many are now taking such warnings a lot more seriously.

This renewed sense of concern has only been underscored by the surge in support for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK Party in Britain’s General Election and it would appear that the far right has been significantly elevated in two countries that until now have deprived them of what broadcaster Euronews described last week as a “breakout moment”.

But the reality is that for some time now those “breakout moments” have come with increasing regularity with six EU countries – Italy, Finland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic – now having hard-right parties in government.

Some are also consolidating the far-right presence in Europe by attempting to create political blocs among themselves.

Just last Friday, Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders announced that his party would join a European parliamentary alliance dubbed the “Patriots for Europe” recently formed by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, that already includes Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) and the populist Czech ANO party led by Andrej Babis.

“Historians will decide in a few years’ time how important this day was – we think this is the day when European policy begins to change,” Orban said a week ago at a press conference in Vienna to mark the launch of the new far-right faction that has pledged to end support for Ukraine and push for peace talks with Russia.

Orban’s announcement came as negotiations to form political blocs entered their final days following European parliamentary elections last month in which far-right parties made gains across the continent.

To become fully recognised in the EU parliament, the Patriots for Europe will need to sign up parties from at least four other countries, but Wilders’s decision to bring his Dutch party into the alliance has only bolstered the determination to complete the far-right bloc.

Rift emerges

For its part, however, Marine Le Pen’s RN party in France, in an effort to secure more votes at home, has for the moment sought to distance itself from the position of some other far-right parties in Europe and in some cases a rift has emerged over certain issues.

In particular, attitudes towards Russia have emerged as a crucial dividing line within Europe’s right with ultraconservative parties such as Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy staunchly opposed to any rapprochement with Moscow over Ukraine.

Some political observers point out that the term “far right” is not entirely appropriate when applied to some of those in Europe. Speaking to Euronews last week in the wake of Reform UK’s surge in support in the General Election, Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that for all its often overt xenophobia and Islamophobia, Reform UK is a “populist radical right party” rather than on the “extreme right”.

Other observers, however, are less convinced by such a definition, arguing instead that certain European parties are simply trying to shed associations or parallels with certain extremist counterparts because it’s politically expedient to do so in terms of winning over more votes.

Once in positions of power, such critics say, these parties’ “true colours” will almost certainly come to the fore.

Marine Le Pen’s RN and its relationship with Germany’s notorious Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a point in case. RN, for example, refused to tolerate AfD’s membership of another right-wing block, the European Parliament’s Identity and Democracy group (ID), after a leading parliamentarian, Maximilian Krah, told an Italian newspaper that he would “never say that anyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal”.

When Krah’s remarks were published, RN, along with several parties from other countries’ delegations, voted to kick AfD out of the group. But dig deeper into RN and its own far-right “credentials” become unmistakeably apparent, says French, journalist and writer Nabila Ramdani, whose book Fixing France gives a very different insight into a country so often depicted as the land of equality and fraternity for all.

“If you look at their history, the RN is a terrifying party,” Ramdani told Euronews in a recent interview. “Nazi nostalgia remains strong among some of its rank and file. So does prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, not least because of the bitter resentment over the loss of France’s colonial Empire in Africa and North Africa, and especially Algeria, in the 1960s.”

“The FN was founded in 1972 by Le Pen’s father, the now convicted racist and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Ramdani explained.

“Those who made up the original FN leadership committee included men who had fought in the Waffen SS during World War II or else served with the Milice, the French paramilitary police units that collaborated with the Third Reich.”


TOPSHOT - Supporters react as former president of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) parliamentary group Marine Le Pen gives a speech during the results evening of the first round of the parliamentary elections in Henin-Beaumont, northern

Supporters react as former president of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) parliamentary group Marine Le Pen gives a speech during the results evening of the first round of the parliamentary elections 


Outright majority

IT’S precisely this malign background that this weekend still casts a shadow over RN as just weeks before the showcase summer Olympics begin in Paris, the party seeks to double down on its first round victory last week by pushing through to an outright majority in today’s second round.

Some political observers say that the ugly incidents that marked the past week running up to today’s vote are an indicator of the troubles France would face were RN successful in its bid to get its hands on the levers of power.

As the tense campaign was wrapping up, France’s interior minister Gerald Darmanin said that at least 51 candidates and their supporters had been physically harmed, quite a few of them while putting up campaign posters.

“Outbreaks of violence are to be feared on Sunday (today),” he told BFM TV, after he decided to step up the police presence that will see about 30,000 police deployed across the country and a ban on a planned far-left demonstration at the National Assembly on voting day.

At the time of going to press, the indicators are, according to an Ipsos poll, that France is heading towards a hung parliament with the far right likely to fall short of the outright majority needed to form a government.

A survey published on Friday showed the RN and its allies would only secure between 175 and 205 seats in the 577-strong parliament. The projection, based on a sample of 10,000 people, shows a wider shortfall compared with other polls that came out earlier last week.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mathieu Gallard, a researcher at Ipsos, said the survey indicated that the strategy by France’s president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance and left-wing parties to pull out more than 200 candidates from three-way races today in order to consolidate the anti-RN vote was working.


French President Emmanuel Macron leaves the voting booth before voting in the early French parliamentary election, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France, Sunday, June 30, 2024. France is holding the first round of an early parliamentary election

French President Emmanuel Macron leaves the voting booth before voting in the early French parliamentary election, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, northern France


Macron’s strategy

Galvanised by the NR’s early triumph, other parties, including Macron’s centrists, spent last week working frantically to prevent it from attaining an absolute majority, an outcome that would force Macron to install its 28-year-old leader, Jordan Bardella, as prime minister.

Macron’s strategy, called the front republicain, requires voters to hold their noses and vote for parties they do not usually support so as to block the RN.

“The front republicain held up surprisingly well in this poll and concerns that people would not follow the advice given by national parties seems unfounded,” Gallard, told the Financial Times.

But whether or not Macron’s strategy of banding together opponents to blunt RN’s most ambitious aims succeeds, the party will still likely be in a position to politically harry and bog down the French president, who assumed his post in 2017 and still has three years remaining in his current term.

Should a hung parliament prove to be the outcome, then after the RN, the left-wing Nouveau Front Populaire (New Popular Front) bloc is on track to come in second with 145 to 175 seats, potentially just on the heels of the RN.

In addition, the Ipsos poll alo suggests that the power dynamics within the left are also shifting, with the previously dominant far-left La France Insoumise (LFI), led by anti-capitalist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, perhaps ending up with 58 to 68 seats, just ahead of the centre-left Socialist party on 51 to 61.

All this, however, is simply polling and the final outcome in France remains uncertain. What’s easier to predict is that the march of Europe’s far right is not going to end anytime soon.

For years now, little by little, it has been gaining ground and nudging its way closer to the epicentres of power.

As Ishaan Tharoor, foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post recently pointed out, “the cordon sanitaire created by more mainstream parties against the putative descendants of Europe’s fascist movements has collapsed. The far right, is on the march … and the initial results of the European Union’s parliamentary elections may point to a definitive arrival”.

As France braces today for what could potentially be a political earthquake, there is a certain irony here.

Back in 2016, when Macron first decided to enter the French political fray, he did so by launching a new centrist-liberal political party called “En Marche” (On the Move).

Eight years later, however, it is embattled Macron’s far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen who appears to be marching forward to power. On June 9, Macron gambled his narrow parliamentary majority by calling a snap election minutes after it became clear that France’s far right had won 40% of French votes in the European Union parliamentary contest.

In doing so, many observers believe, he has put France’s democratic forces and republican ideals in jeopardy. For her part, meanwhile, Le Pen has worked hard to make the RN party more acceptable to voters by seemingly softening its edges.

But as Cecile Alduy, professor of French studies and associate scholar at Sciences Po in Paris recently pointed out, “no-one should be fooled: the NR remains as radical as ever”.

“Despite its aesthetic softening, the party is still fond of Moscow and hostile to the European Union,” wrote Alduy a few days ago in Foreign Affairs magazine as France prepared to go to the polls.

“It remains a discriminatory, bent on taking away rights from immigrants and their children. Regardless of its final margin in the runoffs, it will do everything in its power to make France less global, less democratic, and more hostile to any resident who does not have French ancestors,” Alduy argued, echoing the similar concerns some have about other European far-right parties.

Climate policies

ACROSS the continent now these parties often broadly align or share an identity, be it over scepticism around the EU’s climate policies or migration, or attitudes towards Islam while at the same time increasingly converging with the centre right.

Speaking last week before today’s runoff in France, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for vigilance in the face of far-right political gains in Europe, citing narratives that dehumanise migrants and asylum seekers.

“We need to be very vigilant because history tells us, particularly in Europe, that the vilification of the other, that the denigration of the other, is a harbinger for what’s to come,” Volker Turk told reporters at a press conference in Geneva. “It’s an alarm bell we need to ring.”

In the coming days, as France’s election results become clear, it will be interesting to see just who, if anyone, takes notice of that alarm bell.