The far right is close to power in France. Will the rest of Europe follow?

By Katya Adler, Europe editor
Getty Images Montage with a poster for the National Rally poster showing the faces of leader Marine Le Pen and candidate for prime minister, Jordan Bardella Getty Images

How likely is France to wake up on Monday morning to a new far-right dawn?

That was the garishly painted, hotly debated scenario in media headlines, the EU in Brussels and seats of government across Europe following the first round of France’s parliamentary vote last week.

But despite the spectacular showing by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, the short answer is: an RN majority is possible. Not probable.

French centrist and leftist parties have strategically withdrawn candidates to bolster each other’s contenders ahead of Sunday’s decisive second round.

But the impact of this election will be seismic, whether or not the RN wins an outright majority – or whether Jordan Bardella, its social media-savvy young president, becomes France’s new prime minister.

Polls predict RN is all but guaranteed to win more seats than any other political grouping.

That means a decades-old taboo will have been shattered in France, a core EU nation.

Getty Images A woman looks at election posters next to a polling station during the first round of parliamentary elections in Pau, south-western FranceGetty Images
A poll suggests French voters trust the RN more than any other party to run their economy

The EU was born out of the ashes of World War Two. It was originally designed as a peace project, with wartime enemies, France and Germany, at its core.

Far-right parties were banished to the outer fringes of European politics.

Last month, world leaders gathered in northern France to mark 80 years since D-Day, the allied amphibious assault in Normandy that helped secure the defeat of Nazi Germany.

But now, “far-right” or “hard-right” or “populist nationalist” parties are part of coalition governments in a number of EU countries, including the Netherlands, Italy and Finland.

There are challenges in labelling these parties. Their policies frequently change. They also vary from country to country.

And their normalisation is not an entirely new phenomenon. Former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, a centre-right politician, was the first EU leader to take the plunge. He formed a government with the post-fascist political group, Movimento Sociale Italiano, back in 1994.

Six years later, Austria’s conservatives went into coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. At the time, the EU was so outraged that it blocked official bilateral contacts with Austria for several months.

Post-war political etiquette dictated the political mainstream must form a cordon sanitaire, a “health barrier”, at election time to keep the extreme right out of European governments.

The universally recognised term for that practice is French, which gives you a sense how passionately many in France felt about it.

Getty Images Two pedestrians walk past election posters for the Nouveau Front Populaire (New Popular Front) in Paris, ahead of the second round of France's legislative electionsGetty Images
France’s left-wing political parties have united to form a “New Popular Front” to challenge the RN

In the 2002 Presidential election, some French voters clipped a clothes peg to their noses on their way to polling stations – a way of showing they’d vote for a candidate they didn’t really like, just to keep out the far right.

This was a far right that for years was led by Marine Le Pen’s father, with French former members of a Nazi-led Waffen SS unit in his party ranks.

Fast-forward to 2024, and Marine Le Pen’s ambition, 10 years in the making, to detoxify her father’s party – changing its name and trying hard to clean up its image – appears to have been a roaring success.

The cordon sanitaire now has a searing gash in it, after the leader of France’s centre-right Les Républicains struck a deal with the RN not to compete against each other this Sunday in specific constituencies. This was an earthquake in French politics.

Crucially for Marine Le Pen, those who support her aren’t embarrassed to admit it any more. The RN is no longer viewed as an extremist protest movement. For many, it offers a credible political programme, whatever its detractors claim.

French voters trust the RN more than any other party to manage their economy and (currently poor) public finances, according to an Ipsos poll for the Financial Times newspaper. This is despite the party’s lack of government experience and its largely unfunded tax-cutting and spending plans.