France fears loss of influence in next European Parliament

A general view shows EU members of Parliament listening to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel delivering a speech during a debate on the future of Europe during a plenary session at the European Parliament on November 13, 2018 in Strasbourg, eastern France. - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 13 made a clear call for a future European army, in an apparent rebuke to the US president who has called such proposals "very insulting". Addressing European MEPs on her vision for the future of Europe, Merkel also called for a European Security Council that would centralise defence and security policy on the continent. (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

French MEPs fear they soon won’t matter much.

Facing heavy losses in May’s European Parliament election, France’s two traditional major parties risk becoming just bit-part players in the two biggest blocs in the chamber.

That, in turn, will mean fewer influential posts for lawmakers and less clout in the Parliament for one of the EU’s big powers and founding members.

Both the conservative Les Républicains and the Socialist Party (PS) have been hit hard by the rise of Emmanuel Macron and his centrist party. The PS is in particularly dire straits, polling at only around 5 percent. If it falls below that threshold in the election, it will not send any MEPs at all to the next Parliament.

“The risk is that the left is so deeply divided that there won’t be any French person to represent it in the Parliament,” said a staff member from the French delegation of the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) bloc in the legislature. “What we’re facing is a catastrophe.”

The loss of big-hitters will also mean a lower media profile for French MEPs back home.

According to latest projection based on opinion polls, the party that won 13 seats in the last election would drop to five seats in the next Parliament — as part of a 133-strong Socialists & Democrats group. That’s a serious comedown for the party that has produced pioneers of the European project such as François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors.

“We are going to lose a lot of MEPs,” said Christine Revault d’Allonnes-Bonnefoy, a Socialist MEP who has been mentioned as a possible candidate to lead her party in the May election. “Right now, we are doing the job, we’re getting on with things. It’s not enough, but I don’t have any magic wand to change things.”

Center-left parties are struggling across much of Europe but they are finding the going particularly tough in France, where the left has fractured into multiple parties and movements.

MEPs like Isabelle Thomas, Guillaume Balas and Edouard Martin have quit the PS to join “Générations-s,” a left-wing party created by former Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon. Others like Emmanuel Maurel joined the far-left France Unbowed led by former MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Right off

Things are looking only a bit better for Les Républicains. They are forecast to win 11 seats in the Parliament, compared to 20 in the last election five years ago, making them a small presence in a European People’s Party (EPP) bloc of 176 MEPs.

Les Républicains have been in trouble since their candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign imploded in 2017. The party now appears weak, divided and largely inaudible on EU affairs. Some of its senior European parliamentarians are set to bow out of the chamber, including Alain Lamassoure, Michel Dantin and Françoise Grossetête, who has been an MEP since 1994. The future of Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, another high-profile MEP from the party, remains unclear.

“Not long ago, we had 30 MEPs from a list led by Michel Barnier,” lamented Morin-Chartier, referring to the former European commissioner and current Brexit negotiator. She said the party needs “a regiment of MEPs who are recognized in France and must be influential here in the Parliament.”

Also contributing to the gloom among MEPs from Les Républicains  is the Euroskeptic tone often struck by the leadership under party chief Laurent Wauquiez.

“Their call to reform Europe has become a mantra, and shows the total ignorance of everything that has been carried out in the last five years when the right has led the governing majority in Europe,” Grossetête told the French magazine Le Point in an interview last month.

The current projections suggest Les Républicains would constitute a smaller delegation within the EPP than Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, while the once-mighty French Socialists would bring the same number of seats to the S&D table as Denmark’s Social Democrats.

Strength in numbers

Being a sizeable national delegation inside a big group in the Parliament means wielding considerable clout. In recent years, French MEPs have pushed for progress on issues that France regarded as priorities, such as a revision of the rules on EU citizens working temporarily in another EU country, the sharing of airline passenger records and the removal of online terror content. 

Although the next European Parliament is projected to be more fragmented than the current one, the EPP and S&D are on course to be the largest groups once again. If French MEPs are only small factions within those groups, they stand less chance of winning senior posts — such as committee chairs and policy coordinator roles for their blocs — and of driving the legislative agenda.

Coordinators are crucial as they are appointed for two and a half years thanks to their seniority and experience to act as spokespeople for their group in the Parliament’s legislative committees.

France currently has two coordinators in the S&D group — veteran Socialist Pervenche Bérès in the Economic Affairs Committee, and Virginie Rozière, another Socialist who is a coordinator for the Petitions Committee. It also has several vice coordinators like the EPP’s Arnaud Danjean in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

But only Danjean is almost certain to stay on as an MEP, as a leading candidate for Les Républicains. Berès is set to leave the chamber in May while Rozière’s fate is unclear.

The loss of big-hitters will also mean a lower media profile for French MEPs back home.

“There will be fewer people in France to explain what the Parliament does for voters,” said the French S&D official. “The two big European parties will be inaudible [in France], and that will only strengthen extreme forces.”

Another Parliament official said the decline of the traditional parties could contribute to a greater imbalance in the Franco-German relationship at the heart of the EU. France would not be able to count so much on its MEPs to “convince their German counterparts” in the big groups, the official said.

The main beneficiaries of the travails of Les Républicains and the Socialists are Macron’s La République En Marche, and an array of Euroskeptics from both the left and right, with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally foremost among them.

National Rally’s Marine Le Pen

Euroskeptics would be bolstered by 35 French MEPs — 21 from the National Rally, eight from the far-left France Unbowed and six from the nationalist Debout la France.

Pro-EU politicians will take some comfort from the fact that Macron’s party is forecast to win 20 seats in May’s election. But it will almost certainly not be part of the two biggest groups. Instead it has formed a tentative alliance with the liberal ALDE group, which is predicted to win 68 seats. Most of its MEPs will also be inexperienced, making it harder for them to claim many senior posts in the Parliament or in a group.

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