03 Juli 2024

What a far-right government in France would mean for the EU

By Manuel Müller
Jordan Bardella in the European Parliament

Jordan Bardella (RN/ID) could be the next French prime minister.

Nothing is decided yet. The far-right Rassemblement National (RN/ID) has won the most votes in the first round of the French legislative elections. But the margin was not quite as large as some polls had predicted, and second-round withdrawal alliances between the other parties could still prevent the RN from winning an absolute majority in the French parliament and thus from forming a government. But if such a government were to emerge, the consequences would be considerable – not only for France itself, but also for the European Union.

French dual leadership

In France’s semi-presidential system, executive power is shared between the directly elected president and the government elected by parliament. If the RN wins an absolute majority in parliament, there would be a so-called cohabitation in which the president – Emmanuel Macron (RE/–) until 2027 – and the government would belong to different parties. The head of government would most likely be RN leader Jordan Bardella.

This dual leadership would also be reflected in France’s representation at EU level. In the European Council, the body of the heads of state and government, Macron would continue to hold the French seat. In the Council, however, France would be represented by RN ministers.

Dispute over the French commissioner

While foreign policy is traditionally seen as a reserved domain of the president, competences are not always clearly delineated, especially in EU policy with its own special procedures. The first, immediate conflict would be the nomination of the French commissioner: Neither European nor French law is clear on whether the power to propose a name lies with Macron or the government.

The last time this happened was in 1999, when a new European Commission was appointed while in France there was a cohabitation between the RPR (close to the EPP) and the PS (PES). At that time, however, France was still allowed to nominate two commissioners, and the positions were shared between the RPR and the PS. Today, each member state has only one commissioner. While Macron has come out in favour of a second term for the current single market commissioner Thierry Breton (close to the RE), Bardella insists on deciding this issue himself.

Portfolios are allocated by the Commission president

The EU treaties are open on this issue: According to Art. 17 (7) TEU, the Council selects the commissioners “on the basis of the suggestions made by Member States”. The fact that the decision lies with the Council (and not the European Council) at first sight speaks in favour of Bardella’s claim that the right to make a proposal lies with the government rather than the president. Later in the nomination procedure, however, after the commissioners have received a vote of approval by the European Parliament, it is the European Council who formally appoints them, which the Macron camp uses as an argument in its favour.

Incidentally, however, both the Council and the European Council act by qualified majority when electing the Commission. This means that, in principle, France could be outvoted in this decision. If there is no agreement between the government and the president, it could therefore be the other governments who end up resolving this dispute. This would be unprecedented in the history of the EU institutions.

In any case, the influence of far-right parties on the Commission will remain very limited. Apart from France, only Italy and Hungary are likely to nominate far-right politicians as commissioners. Moreover, the distribution of portfolios within the Commission is the sole responsibility of the Commission president, who is likely to be Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP). Even if an RN member were to be elected to the Commission, he or she would probably only be responsible for a relatively unimportant issue.

Legislation: Far-right blocking minority in the Council

More problematic is the role of the far-right parties in European legislation. The European Council, and therefore Emmanuel Macron, has no role to play here. Rather, the EU’s ordinary legislative procedure under Art. 294 TFEU, which is used for most EU policies, is a kind of ping-pong game between the European Parliament and the Council, in which France would in future be represented by RN ministers.

However, under the ordinary legislative procedure qualified majority voting applies in the Council: For a proposal to be adopted, it must be supported by at least 55% of the governments (i.e. 15 out of 27) representing at least 65% of the EU population. France could therefore be outvoted here, too.

More right-wing governments mean more right-wing compromises

But France would not be the only member state with a right-wing government, of course – in Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, Croatia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, member parties of the far-right European political groups ECR and ID are also involved in national government coalitions. Together with France, these governments represent just over 40% of the EU population and would therefore form a blocking minority in the Council. For the first time in the history of the EU, it would be impossible to adopt a European law without the agreement of at least one government with far-right participation.

In practice, this too would only be a gradual change. The Council does not usually vote strictly along party lines, and governments have never maintained a cordon sanitaire against the far right here anyway. But the more far-right governments there are, the more right-wing the compromises agreed by the Council will be. And as the second largest member state, France has a special weight.

Integration progress becomes even more difficult

On areas where unanimity is required and each member state has a veto, the presence of an RN government in the Council would have a more direct impact. This would include, for example, new military and financial aid to Ukraine or new sanctions against Russia or Belarus, as well as the next multiannual financial framework from 2028 and all relevant decisions on enlargement policy and institutional reforms.

After Hungary’s various attempts to block processes in recent years, the other member states now have some experience of the (more or less dubious) tricks that can be used to circumvent vetoes. A far-right French government would therefore not necessarily mean a halt to all development, but could possibly unleash new creativity in developing “differentiated” solutions.

However, the special weight of France as the second largest member state would come into play here, too. The German government, in particular, is likely to feel uneasy about pushing ahead with European integration without its traditional partner in the “Franco-German engine”. And when it comes to institutional reform, progress has recently been extremely slow anyway, even without the RN.

New conflicts over the primacy of European law

But the greatest potential for conflict between an RN government and the rest of the EU is likely to lie elsewhere – namely in the unity of the European legal community. In its European election manifesto, the RN made no secret of the fact that it wants to transform the EU into a pure confederation of sovereign states, in which not only would the Commission be completely disempowered, but also national law would take precedence over common European rules. At least in the area of migration policy, the RN even wants to impose the primacy of national law unilaterally by means of a national referendum.

Anyone who has followed the conflict in recent years between Poland’s far-right government (voted out of office in 2023) and its cangaroo constitutional court, on the one hand, and the European Court of Justice on the other, will find this pattern ominously familiar. The fundamental primacy of European law has been firmly embedded in the functioning of the EU for six decades. Challenging it unilaterally would inevitably lead to massive legal uncertainty, as French courts would be faced with the question of whether to follow the national or the European legal order – a kind of “internal Frexit”.

Against a net contributor, financial sanctions are of little help

As it did with Poland, the European Commission would probably react to this by starting infringement proceedings before the European Court of Justice, which could ultimately leaed to fines and periodic penalty payments against France. Unlike Poland, however, France is a net contributor to the EU. If the EU stops payments to France, an RN-dominated parliament could therefore respond by blocking French contributions to the EU budget.

This would be facilitated by the fact that France (unlike other member states) already votes on the payment of its EU contributions as part of the annual national budget law. This is actually not in line with European law: national EU contributions are not part of the national budget, but belong to the EU’s own resources, which are only collected by member states. The only reason this has not been a problem so far is that a majority in the French parliament has regularly voted in favour of fulfilling its obligation to pay the contributions.

If the RN were to change this, the EU would have a problem. Without an own financial administration, it would lack the means to take action against such a power play. This also highlights a major Achilles heel of the rule of law mechanisms that the EU has developed in recent years. Since they are all largely focused on financial sanctions, they have limited effect if the government of a net contributor country decides to play hardball.

For a referendum, the RN needs the president

Still, even if the RN comes to power this Sunday, it is unlikely that these conflicts will escalate immediately. In order to call a national constitutional referendum, which would be necessary for an anti-European judicial reform, the French government needs the approval of the president of the Republic – and that is Emmanuel Macron.

At least in the first few years, an RN government under Jordan Bardella would therefore still remain under the control of the national courts applying EU law. Things would only get really difficult if RN leader Marine Le Pen were to win the next French presidential election in 2027. Thus, the EU still has three years to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s election, it should not wait too long.

Picture: Jordan Bardella in the European Parliament: European Union 2022 – Source: EP, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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