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Will the rise of France's far right sour ties with Germany?

July 3, 2024

After the first round of elections in France, German leaders are worried that the rise of far-right National Rally party may severely damage Franco-German relations.

France and Germany flags blowing in the wind
German politicians are worried about how the rise of the far-right RN in France will affect bilateral relationsImage: Ralph Peters/chromorange/picture alliance

Marine Le Pen and her right-wing National Rally party came out on top in the first round of elections in France.

For German politicians, this gives rise to fresh concerns about Franco-German relations.

Green Party leader Ricarda Lang and Mario Voigt from the opposition center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were among those who quickly said that they believe President Emmanuel Macron made a mistake by calling new elections.

What does the shift to the right mean for Franco-German relations? RN party leader Jordan Bardella said shortly before the election that as head of government, he would not change anything in relations with Berlin for the time being.

But the RN has always been "very critical of Germany, at times almost hostile to Germany," said Ronja Kempin, a researcher with the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "They have accused Macron of selling out French interests to Germany and said they want to put a stop to this as soon as they have their chance at power," she told DW.

French far-right victory could impact EU, NATO

Until recently, it was stated in the RN's political program that the joint projects of a combined Franco-German fighter aircraft and a combat tank should be terminated. Bardella has now said that France's international commitments should be honored; this might also refer to the two armaments projects.

Marc Ringel, director of the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg, foresees difficulties for bilateral relations if the RN comes to power: "There is the question of whether the new French government will respect the bilateral agreements. Politically, there would be a lot of uncertainty," he told DW.

Among the topics in the RN election platform that could lead to conflict with the EU and Berlin are a cut to France's financial commitment to the EU, an exit from the EU's electricity market, a withdrawal from the migration treaty, and restrictions on travel for non-EU foreigners — although it is, of course, unclear whether such plans could ultimately be implemented. French support for Ukraine could also be scaled back.

Reasons for the RN's rise

Among many French voters there is a "widespread public frustration with politics and a growing feeling of being left behind. The RN has been very clever in tapping into this dissatisfaction," said Ringel.

In addition to the major issues of migration and domestic security, the party has been focusing on economic and social issues. For example, it wants to reduce VAT on energy from 20% to 5.5%.

For years, Le Pen has been working to rebrand her party to appear less extreme. She expelled her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is known for having once relativized the Holocaust, rendering the party unelectable for broad sections of the population. Now, the National Rally has said it is prepared to make political compromises.

In Germany, the traditional parties have a "firewall policy" of refusing to cooperate with the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD). Such reluctance does not exist in France, where the RN has been the largest opposition party in the National Assembly since 2022. Since then, the president's coalition government has passed numerous laws with the support of the RN, such as tightening immigration laws.

"In France, the RN is much more restrained than the AFD is in Germany," said Kempin. Le Pen has also clearly distanced herself from the AfD and refused to work with it in the European Parliament.

Le Pen has twice lost to Emmanuel Macron in presidential runoffs. He cannot run again in 2027

After the first round of National Assembly elections, the RN is now the strongest party with around 33%. One thing is already certain: the National Rally is no longer an outsider and has become electable for broad sections of the population.

While President Macron will continue in office, his political options will likely be severely limited in the future, as he might find himself having to work with RN party leader Bardella as prime minister.

France’s LGBTQ+ community fears for their rights

But if the RN fails to win an absolute majority in the run-off, Macron could face an alternative that could be just as difficult: a stalemate in the National Assembly, with the right-wing and left-wing powers obstructing each other.

For RN leader Bardella, however, becoming prime minister is only the first part of the plan. In the 2027 presidential election, when Macron will no longer be able to run again, Le Pen is planning to run for a fourth time — and has a good chance of winning.

If that happens, "then we would definitely be in a very different Europe," said Kempin.

"Marine Le Pen, like Giorgia Meloni in Italy, would remain in the EU to turn it upside down, to hollow it out, to reshape it according to her ideas," warned Ringel of the Franco-German Institute.

In the months ahead, the German government will see itself forced to prepare for difficult times ahead in relations with its biggest neighbor.

This article was originally written in German.