France’s far-right National Front stormed European Parliament polls as euroskeptic parties in several countries served up a harsh reality check for the EU on Sunday that sent shock waves across the bloc and beyond.
France was reeling from a political earthquake Monday after the far-right National Front (FN) topped the polls in European elections by winning the backing of just over one in four voters.
With 80 percent of ballots counted following Sunday’s vote, the Interior Ministry announced that the anti-immigration, anti-EU party led by Marine Le Pen had secured 26 percent of the vote, guaranteeing them around a third of France’s 74 seats in the European Parliament.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the election results were “more than a news alert.”
“It is a shock, an earthquake,” Valls said. “The moment we are living through is serious, very serious, for France and for Europe.”
Riding twin waves of Euroskepticism fuelled by a belief that Brussels is responsible for the country’s current economic woes and furious disillusionment with its political establishment, the FN beat the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) into second place (20.6 percent).
Valls’ governing Socialists were trailing in a humiliating third place (13.8%), according to the partial results, largely reflecting the deep unpopularity of President Francois Hollande.
The result is the highest score ever obtained in a nationwide election by the National Front and follows breakthrough gains made by the once pariah party in municipal elections earlier in the year.
“It is a historic score. We are now the first party in France,” FN vice-president Florian Philippot said as senior Socialist minister Segolene Royal acknowledged that the far-right’s victory was “a shock on a global scale.”
Marine Le Pen, 45, has been credited with significantly broadening the appeal of a party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and long tainted by association with his multiple convictions for inciting racism and denying the holocaust.
She said voters had demonstrated their desire to “reclaim the reins of their own destiny.”
“Our people demand only one type of politics – a politics of the French, for the French and with the French,” she said.
“They have said they no longer want to be ruled from outside, to have to submit to laws they did not vote for or to obey (EU) commissioners who are not subject to the legitimacy of universal suffrage.”
Nigel Farage, leader of the euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), on Sunday said his party was on course to cause a political “earthquake” by winning the European parliament election in Britain.
“UKIP is going to win this election and yes that will be an earthquake because never before in the history of British politics has a party seen as an insurgent party ever topped the polls in a national election,” Farage told journalists.
Greece’s EU vote on Sunday saw an early lead for anti-austerity leftist party Syriza, but also delivered a strong showing for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party despite a criminal probe against its leaders.
With results from nearly 40 percent of polling stations, Syriza had a lead of around three percent over the ruling conservative New Democracy.
Syriza’s 39-year-old leader Alexis Tsipras, a candidate to head the European Commission for the European Left, had called the vote a “referendum” on austerity and said the government had lost its legitimacy. He called for early national elections.
There was better news for the pro-EU camp in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party won 36 percent of the vote, while its coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats, scored 27.5 percent.
But even in the EU’s most powerful member state, the nay-sayers were not totally denied.
Exit polls showed the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which calls for the dissolution of the euro, with 6.5 percent of the vote, putting it above the threshold needed to get seats in the European Parliament just a year after the party was formed.
In addition to how the parties fare, a key issue was the final turnout figures after participation hit a record low 43 percent in 2009.
Despite only a marginal increase to 43.11 percent, europhiles still hailed the turnout as a historic turning point since voting numbers have fallen in each successive election since the first poll in 1979.
But many of those voters came out to support anti-euro and anti-immigration parties who had tapped into growing voter frustration with the EU, saying Brussels has too much power and does not listen.
In Britain, UKIP – a party without a single seat in the national parliament — set the scene on Thursday with a major breakthrough in local council polls, and were leading in early results on Sunday night in the European vote.
Exit polls in Denmark also suggested that the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party was headed for victory with 23 percent of the vote.
Years of economic crisis which pushed unemployment to record levels and hugely unpopular austerity policies has clearly left Europe’s cosy centre-right, centre-left co-dominion badly exposed.
The inroads made by the anti-EU and radical parties have stoked concern they could hold Parliament hostage, working against the EU from within, but analysts say such fears may be overdone.
The EPP and Socialists would hold about 400 seats in the new assembly of 751 and traditionally the two groups have worked together for much of the time and should be able to continue to do so, they said.
The anti-EU and radical parties will have most impact at the national level and not in the European Parliament, said Erik Nielsen of Italy’s UniCredit bank.
Nielsen said the “relatively strong showing of nationalists is a disturbing sign of many people feeling disenfranchised” by globalisation, especially mass immigration but the EU was the best place to address those concerns.
Faced by mounting hostility to the Brussels bureaucracy, which is seen as aloof, EU political leaders have worked hard to correct a so-called “democratic deficit”.
For the first time, the five main groups in parliament named candidates to be the next head of the powerful European Commission and sent them out on the campaign trail.
They also organised televised debates between the candidates, exposing them to the harsh light of public questioning.
Summing up the hopes of reconnecting with the bloc’s 500 million people, a giant banner hung at EU headquarters in Brussels read: “This time it’s different — Your vote counts.”
Analysts have their doubts, however.
“The European Parliament’s bid to politicise and personalise the vote has not worked,” said Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Robert Schuman Foundation.
In eastern Europe, the Ukraine crisis and fears of a resurgent Russia appear to have bolstered the attraction of EU ties and the security they offer.
In Lithuania, 44-year-old civil servant Jurate Kiserauske said the EU “is our only salvation and future. If we are not there, we would not remain where we are but we would return back to Russia, to the Soviet Union”.