The EU elections will challenge Macron’s leadership and influence

If his party is severely defeated at the European elections in June, the French president will find it harder than before to shape the EU’s agenda.

Expert comment Published 30 May 2024 3 minute READ

France’s President Emmanuel Macron is worried about the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. Votes for his long-time opponent Marine Le Pen’s far-right party are expected to surge at the expense of those for his own centrist party. 

The new European Parliament that emerges from the elections, held on 6–9 June, will most likely have far fewer seats for Macron’s Renaissance party than its current tally of 23. 

Numerous surveys show that the French president’s list may only win around 16 per cent of votes, while Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National) is leading by a long way, with more than 30 per cent. 

This would be a third consecutive victory for the National Rally in European elections – and this time it could be a landslide. 

The June polls are being portrayed by Le Pen as a mid-term judgment on the French president. 

A severe blow at these elections could limit the French president’s influence over shaping the EU’s future strategic agenda. What effects could this loss of influence have and who would fill Macron’s shoes? 

June polls seen as verdict on Macron

In 2019 European elections, Macron’s Renaissance party nearly matched Le Pen’s score of 23 per cent. Now his list, led by the MEP Valérie Hayer, may be pushed into third place behind the social-democrat group, led by Raphaël Glucksmann. He is attracting voters who feel that Macron has leaned too much to the right in his second term, especially over pensions reform and a controversial migration law.

The June polls are being portrayed by Le Pen as a mid-term judgment on the French president. Should the results prove to be less grim than expected – say, close to 20 per cent of the votes – Macron could limit the damage and move on from what he would consider as a politically difficult moment. 

Another boost would be if the right-wing Gaullist party (Les Republicains) fails to reach the five per cent threshold needed to secure a seat in the parliament in Strasbourg. 

But a massive defeat by Le Pen would undermine Macron’s authority. He has been at the forefront of the campaign, making eloquent speeches and appearing regularly in media interviews. If Gluckmann’s list manages to get ahead of Hayer’s in the polls, this could also undermine Macron’s previous monopoly on pro-EU votes in his own country. 

In such circumstances, the day after the polls could bring calls for a government reshuffle.  

Ripple effects of less direct influence 

At a European level, President Macron’s capacity for influence depends on election results both in France and elsewhere. 

Renaissance belongs to the liberal and centrist grouping Renew, which is the third political force in the outgoing European Parliament. Were it to slip from third place, the group would lose the king-maker role it has enjoyed in the parliament between the ever-dominant Christian-Democrats and the Social-Democrats groupings. 

A member state’s influence in European affairs… relies on its closeness with key partners in the European Council. Macron is already losing like-minded allies.

Third place could instead shift to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group due to an expected strong showing for Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party. That, coupled with a shrinking number of Renaissance MEPs, would see Macron lose leverage within the European Parliament.

A member state’s influence in European affairs also relies on its closeness with key partners in the European Council. Macron is already losing like-minded allies on the Council, with liberal Benelux leaders either out of office (Xavier Bettel in Luxemburg) or soon to be so (Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, Alexander De Croo in Belgium). 

Europe’s so-called ‘Franco-German engine’, which has experienced deep difficulties, would also be affected by a politically weakened Macron. That would be doubly true if the German chancellor Olaf Scholz and his three-party coalition are also hurt by victorious opposition parties, such as the right-wing Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU–CSU). 

Macron’s first leadership test after the elections will be the appointment of EU top jobs. In 2019, he succeeded in placing Ursula von der Leyen at the helm of the European Commission despite reluctance from the European Parliament. He may soon be less able to impose his views on an institution that defies him. 

Alternatives to Macron?

Apart from Macron’s party, France has no other major influence in the European Parliament. French Socialists and Gaullists are both isolated national delegations within their respective groups (Les Républicains oppose von der Leyen despite belonging to the same group). 

If Macron’s EU influence fades, it will not be to the benefit of another French political figure but rather to outside ones, such as Meloni, or Donald Tusk.

National Rally MEPs lack political heft, despite being numerous. Their leader, Jordan Bardella, has been widely criticized for minimal involvement during his first mandate as MEP. 

Having dropped any bid to abandon the euro or exit the EU, Le Pen now appears largely indifferent to European integration, which her party now seeks to undermine from within. Her party is fully focused on the 2027 French presidential election and will direct its political gains solely towards that end. 

In other words, even if Macron’s EU influence fades, it will not be to the benefit of another French political figure but rather to outside ones, such as Meloni, or Donald Tusk, Poland’s premier and former European Council president. 

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A country’s influence is also a matter of its economic credentials. Concerns are mounting about France’s fiscal position, which the IMF forecasts will be much worse for 2024 onwards than the government predicts. The state of domestic finances will hamper Macron’s push for new EU borrowing – opposed by the Netherlands and, for the time being, Germany, but supported elsewhere. 

Yet, Macron can claim to have won the battle of ideas among European leaders. 

The concept of European sovereignty, elaborated in his first Sorbonne speech in 2017, is now widely recognized as central to shaping the EU strategic agenda in the current geopolitical circumstances – and will remain so for the next five years. 

Meanwhile the European Political Community, a brainchild of Macron’s, is set to hold a summit in the UK on 18 July, with more planned.

For the rest of his time in office, Macron, as head of one of the biggest member states in the EU and its sole nuclear power, will continue to advance his views on defence, economic security, the single market and industrial policy. 

He will also seek new allies and platforms to support them, such as the revived Weimar Triangle format (France, Germany, Poland). Beyond the EU, he will welcome closer cooperation with the UK after its elections in July.