Europe’s voters lurched towards the political fringes on Sunday night as early European Parliament election results showed gains for parties ranging from the populist to the neo-Nazi, with France’s Front National (FN) leading the Eurosceptic surge in a calamitous defeat for mainstream parties.
Marine Le Pen’s FN topped a nationwide poll for the first time in its history, with the anti-immigrant party predicted to take 25 per cent of the vote and as many as 24 seats in the European Parliament, a dramatic gain on the three they won in 2009.
Ms Le Pen said France had “shouted loud and clear” that it wanted to be run “by the French, for the French and with the French” and not by “foreign commissioners” in Brussels. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, said the victory was “more than a shock – it’s an earthquake”.
The outcome was a stinging humiliation for President François Hollande’s Socialist Party, which looked likely to emerge with its lowest-ever score in a nationwide vote with only 14.5 per cent.
Early results also suggested a backlash in many struggling eurozone nations against the austerity measures which have sent unemployment soaring and decimated social spending, with parties on the far left and right performing well. Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn will be sending MEPs to Brussels for the first time.
As in France, populist parties in Britain, Austria and Germany have also benefited from concern about migration and distrust of the EU.
For many people, this disillusionment meant not voting at all: turnout was estimated at 43 per cent, a tiny increase on the last European election in 2009, but a gain unlikely to convince the growing number of Eurosceptics of the democratic credentials of Brussels.
Overall the European People’s Party – the alliance of centre-right parties from across the 28 EU member states – retained the most MEPs in the 751-seat assembly, with early projections giving the bloc 211 seats, compared to 193 for the Socialists and Democrats. Early projections showed that protest parties could win around 129 seats.
This means pro-European parties will still dominate the Parliament, the EU’s only elected institution, which works with the European Commission and the 28 governments to debate and pass laws. But they will be battling a stronger dissenting bloc than ever before, especially if Ms Le Pen succeeds in her goal to form a new political group specifically aimed at curbing the EU’s powers.
She has allied herself with a number of populist parties across the EU. Like the FN, which was in the past accused of anti-Semitism, most of them are trying to shake off the far-right tag and appeal to the more mainstream voters. But there have been slip-ups.
One candidate for the far-right Austrian Freedom Party was forced to withdraw after he called the EU a “conglomerate of Negroes”.
Despite this, exit polls suggested the party doubled their showing in the European Parliament, winning four seats, which will help boost Ms Le Pen’s ambitions.
But her key ally – Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party – has seen his party drop two seats in the Parliament, after a xenophobic outburst in which he asked his supporters if they would like “fewer Moroccans” in The Netherlands.
She is also unlikely to be able to count on support from a new German anti-euro party – the Alternative for Germany – which won six seats.
Its leader, Bernd Lucke, said: “We won’t work with right-wing populists.”
Some exit polls suggest the National Democratic Party, a radical far right German party with neo-Nazi traits, may also scrape the threshold to send a lawmaker to Brussels for the first time. Golden Dawn – whose supporters perform Nazi salutes and have been arrested for assaulting migrants – managed to get around 10 per cent of the vote, sending at least two MEPs to Brussels.
The far left and anti-establishment parties also did well, with anti-bailout Syriza party in Greece winning the vote in a blow for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's New Democracy party, which came second. Italy was the last country to close the ballet boxes, but the Five-Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo is also expected to gain as many as 19 seats in the parliament.
Turnout has been falling every consecutive election since the first poll in 1979. In an effort to boost participation this year, all the major blocs in the European Parliament nominated a candidate to be head of the European Commission, and sent them on the campaign trail on US-style bus tours.