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1 July 2024

What the National Rally’s rise means for Labour

Keir Starmer and David Lammy may soon be faced with nationalist governments across the Atlantic and the Channel.

By Freddie Hayward

In eight days’ time, France could have its first hard-right government since the Second World War. President Emmanuel Macron’s gamble to call an early parliamentary election has not paid off. Yesterday’s first round vote saw Marine Le Pen’s National Rally move into first place, with the left-wing New Popular Front in second and Macron’s Ensemble trailing in third.

If Macron and the left cannot agree to prioritise candidates with the best chance of beating the National Rally before the second round on Sunday, then Le Pen’s protégé Jordan Bardella could become Macron’s prime minister. The best Macron’s camp can hope for is to deprive the National Rally of an outright majority. France’s options look grim: gridlock or the hard right in government.

The National Rally’s success corresponds with a broader rise in the nationalist right across Europe. Today, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has taken up the EU presidency, promising to “Make Europe Great Again”. The European parliamentary elections in June saw the hard right make decent advances. After Joe Biden’s weak attempt to debate Donald Trump on Thursday, and the Democrats’ refusal to offer voters a different candidate, the chances that Trump will re-enter the White House have increased.

When I asked Keir Starmer last week what he thought about a Marine Le Pen victory, he said he wanted “progressives” to win across Europe. Starmer’s preference is clear. But that does not mean Labour will not work with nationalist governments. As Jason writes in this week’s cover story, David Lammy’s foreign policy is to engage with governments whatever their ideological purity. He has spent time with senior Republicans, such as vice-president contender JD Vance, Senator Lindsey Graham and the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. I’m told to expect similar treatment of nationalist governments in Europe.

The early parliamentary election took Labour by surprise as much as Macron’s own prime minister, who was reportedly furious with the rash decision. Lammy has invested time building relationships with Macron’s inner circle (as I reported here). But France’s next elections weren’t due until 2027, meaning outreach to Macron’s potential successors has been minimal. Expect, therefore, Labour to extend overtures to Le Pen’s National Rally soon.

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That may not be as difficult as you might think. Key to Labour’s plans for Europe is to agree a security pact. Le Pen has indicated in the past her support for the Lancaster House Agreement, which binds the UK and France together over defence. Le Pen’s move to moderate the party – she’s distanced herself from Germany’s more extreme Alternative for Germany, for instance – makes cooperation easier.

If Starmer wins on Thursday, he could soon face nationalist governments across the Channel and the Atlantic. Five days after the election, he would attend (if he wins) the Nato summit in Washington DC. Two weeks after the election, at Blenheim Palace, Starmer would host the European Political Community, a Macron initiative that facilitates EU engagement with the UK. Both summits are opportunities for Labour to kick-start its planned “reset” in relations with Europe. A turbulent election in France will only make this mission more important.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Labour’s missions are no substitute for ideology]

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