Emmanuel Macron's Euro election campaign is off to a disastrous start

Nathalie Loiseau, the lead candidate for the president's party, has already made a string of gaffes. 

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Europe was supposed to be Emmanuel Macron’s strong point. In March, he published an op-ed published in newspapers across the EU (and translated into 27 languages), to address the citizens of Europe and launch the European election campaign for his party La République En Marche (LREM). He warned against “letting nationalists exploit public anger”, at Brexit and beyond, having previously compared nationalism to leprosy.

Yet since then, everything has gone wrong for the LREM campaign.

Nathalie Loiseau, the candidate heading the LREM European election list of candidates, has gone from one controversy to the next. Formerly Macron’s Europe minister (she resigned to lead the list), she was a discrete cabinet member but considered a strong candidate choice, with her professional experience in diplomacy and her recent European portfolio. The Times described her as “Macron’s secret weapon in the fight over Brexit”. Unfortunately, she has not proved to be particularly effective in fighting the European elections: her catastrophic campaign so far has eroded the party’s credibility, rather than forming a

Loiseau’s campaign crumbled on 22 April, when French independent media Médiapart revealed that she had campaigned on a far-right student union list in 1984. She was studying at elite private university Sciences Po, where she ran on the list of student union UED, which had roots in the GUD, an extreme far-right party that was known for its violent acts and its racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic views, and was close to Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front. Another student candidate on the list was Christophe Bay, a civil servant who contributed to Marine Le Pen’s 2017 manifesto, Le Monde reported.

For a candidate who has painted herself as Marine Le Pen’s main opponent in the European elections, the revelations were disastrous – but her management of the situation was somehow worse. Loiseau first denied any link to the UED; then said she had “forgotten about it”. She admitted to Médiapart that she had not “perceived” the political alliances of such a list and “should have taken a closer look” at the time –the problem, as many noted, lies with the fact that the UED was far from the only centre-right party choice at Sciences Po at the time. As the controversy kept growing, she then declared that her presence on the UED list was a “youthful mistake” that she “regrets” (she was 20).

Loiseau has claimed that this major embarrassment does not question her commitment to Macron’s LREM, which is in direct opposition to nationalists like those of the GUD. “I am heading a list, the purpose of which is to fight the far right,” she said in a video addressing the scandal, which she posted on Twitter. “I hate everything the far right represents.” Having to make this crystal clear, in the middle of a campaign, looks dreadful nonetheless.

This controversy around Loiseau’s past political activities was followed by other, unrelated mishaps. She was criticised earlier this week for insensitive remarks about Roma people, having declared on the radio that as the new director at the ENA, France’s elite administration school, she “felt like a Rom” because she was not an alumni – and was looked down on. (“This ‘shield’ against the far-right is as thin as a cardboard cut-out”, Loiseau’s fellow chief candidate, Ian Brossat for the French Communist Party list, tweeted in response.) Loiseau is also the author of a comic book about Europe, which with its release in mid-April was well-timed with the campaign. Unfortunately, some readers were shocked to discover that to illustrate Europe’s diversity, Loiseau chose to compare Poland’s gay marriage to the situation other EU states, writing: “Every country should be able to do as it wants!” She was accused of “banalising homophobia”, and a socialist MP wondered: “With ‘progressives’ like this, who needs conservatives?”

It started with Macron’s pro-Europe trumpets, but the LREM campaign is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Worry is spreading in Macron’s party ranks, where Loiseau is seen as too “technocratic” a candidate – and now is bringing trouble, too. “Our campaign isn’t dynamic, it’s not taking off”, Le Monde reported one LREM member saying. The LREM programme remains vague, with Macron’s the only prominent name on its website – and, seemingly, its only selling point.

For a party based on one central figure, which destroyed the competition less than a year after its creation during the 2017 French presidential election, the next poll was always going to be challenging,  European election even more so. But as Macron made clear, this one is a pivotal moment for Europe. And as things stand, his team doesn’t look like a winner.

Meanwhile, Le Pen’s National Rally (RN, formerly FN) knows it only has to sit on its hands to score around 20 per cent of the electorate. The far-right party is right on LREM’s heels in most polls. Macron’s party might get the most votes, but if its campaign is anything to go by, the mighty defence of progressive values the president promised seems somewhat compromised.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.