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Voters backed far-right parties in the European Parliament elections. This Northeastern expert analyses what it means

Newspapers described the far-right traction as a “wave” but Marianna Griffini, a populism expert at Northeastern, says calling it a surge goes too far.

People's feet hidden behind blue, white, and red cloths at a voting station.
French President Emmanuel Macron called a snap election after far-right party National Rally secured almost a third of the vote in the European Parliament election. AP photo by Stephane Lemouton

LONDON — The front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro put it succinctly: la déferlante. It described “the wave” of right wing support that had rippled across Europe during the European Parliament elections.

National Rally in France picked up close to a third of the vote in the elections that concluded on Sunday. In Italy, almost 30% of voters backed the Brothers of Italy, the traditionalist party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni

The far-right party Alternative for Germany gained seats when compared to its performance in 2019, as did Vox in Spain. The Freedom Party of Austria came first in Vienna, bagging a quarter of all votes cast.

Marianna Griffini, an assistant professor in international relations and anthropology at Northeastern University, says it is clear that far-right parties have made “big gains” in the elections held across 27 European Union member states.

Headshot of Marianna Griffini.
Marianna Griffini is a populism expert who teaches at Northeastern University in London. Courtesy photo

But she warns against seeing it as a “surge” when the centrist party in the Brussels parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), maintained its strong position, with it looking to be on track to hold about a quarter of the 720 seats available.

“These headlines about a cataclysmic change, they are not without substance because indeed we see that at domestic level,” she says. “At the national level, the far-right has been making big gains. But when you translate that into seats in the European Parliament, if you look at the influence of far-right parties, even when they are pulled together into their different parliamentary groups, we see that the center, the EPP, is holding.

“I would warn against the use of the word ‘surge’ because that makes it seem that it is cataclysmic, and I think that exaggerates and overestimates the proportion. I think, at the same time though, that we cannot deny that we are witnessing a rightward shift.”

Griffini, who teaches on Northeastern’s London campus, said far-right groups could aim to work together to water down the EU’s environmental policies, given that a characteristic of such outfits is to be “hostile” to the green agenda.

Migration is “another hot topic” that is likely to be “quite high on the far-right agenda,” she says. It is certainly one of Meloni’s main political issues, with the Italian premier having campaigned for the bloc to adopt tougher border controls.

But not every far-right party shares the same priorities or focus on migration, Griffini explains. The populist party Chega, which took almost 10% of the vote among the Portuguese electorate last week, values campaigning for affordable housing in addition to its anti-immigration stance, says Griffini. Spain’s Vox party is also “quite anti ‘woke’ and anti trans rights” in its messaging, she says.

“We can see they have anti-immigrant beliefs — we can’t ignore the fact that the far-right are by definition nativist,” Griffini says. “But the influence that they will have in actually steering EU migration policy is not taken for granted because it depends on how they will mediate between their domestic priorities and what they are carrying out at EU level.”

Nowhere was the shock of the rightward shift among voters felt more than in France. President Emmanuel Macron called a snap domestic election after exit polls on Sunday showed Marine Le Pen’s National Rally received more than double the votes that his Renaissance party secured.

The mood was again summed up by headline writers, with the daily newspaper Libération branding Macron’s decision: “Pari extreme” — translated as “an extreme bet.” Should National Rally perform well in the election, it could mean the far-right is in control of the National Assembly and possibly in government when the Paris Olympics starts in just six weeks’ time.

Griffini says it seems Macron, whose presidential term runs until 2027, wanted to “create a shock” and “shake the political consciousness” to wake up the public to the threat of the far-right being in power.

The Assembly is currently deadlocked, meaning that, even without an election, it has been difficult for Macron to pursue his agenda. But Griffini points out that the French leader has only a “short amount of time” in which to change the country’s mood, with the snap election scheduled for June 30 and July 7.

One aspect that may give Macron hope is that the two-part system for voting in France means the electorate is confronted with the stark reality of potentially electing a far-right government when they go into the polling booth for the second time.

“Given the electoral system in France, with its second-round run-off ballot, I have some reservations about whether people in the second ballot will actually vote for the far-right,” Griffini says. “Le Pen went very close three years ago to become the first far-right and female president of the republic, but [she lost to Macron] in the run-off.”