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Politics & Government

European Elections Will Test The Strength Populism: 'The Stakes Are High'


On this Memorial Day weekend, we're going to start the program in Europe because voters there are casting ballots for their representatives to the European Parliament. The election, held every five years, usually doesn't generate much interest. But this year, it is seen as a test of strength for rising populist nationalist parties across the continent. And in France, where the far-right party of Marine Le Pen is leading in the polls, the vote is also seen as a referendum on the fiercely pro-EU president, Emmanuel Macron. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has this report from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In France, the European Parliament election feels like a rematch of the 2017 presidential race. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has picked herself up after her humiliating defeat by Macron two years ago. She's now launching an assault on what she says Macron's vision of Europe will bring - savage capitalism with closing factories and illegal migrants pouring over insecure borders.


MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking Italian).

BEARDSLEY: If you thought you heard Le Pen speaking Italian, you did. That's her at a recent rally in Milan with her political buddy, Matteo Salvini. Italy's far-right deputy prime minister invited populist leaders from across Europe for an EU-bashing party in front of Milan's Gothic cathedral.


THIERRY MARIANI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: At a campaign event in Paris, a candidate from Le Pen's National Rally party, Thierry Mariani, is happy the French far-right now has plenty of company.


MARIANI: Many countries are changing. For example, look what's happened in Italy, what's happened in Austria, and in the last three months in Spain, in Estonia, in Finland.

BEARDSLEY: All countries where the far-right is part of coalition governments or has broken into the mainstream. In France, Le Pen supporters say they also relish the idea of casting a vote in rebuke of their president, Emmanuel Macron. They loathe his ideas of a United States of Europe and claim he favors the rich. Le Pen supporter Francoise Bedouet says she's joined in the recent yellow vest protests over the high cost of living.

FRANCOISE BEDOUET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Everyone is sick and tired of Macron, she says. He's raised our taxes, and we aren't free to choose. It's the EU that makes our decisions. Macron has lowered some taxes affecting the working class, but it hasn't appeased yellow vest protesters. But three years of chaos over Brexit has stopped talk about leaving the EU. Instead, eurosceptic parties hope to win enough seats in the EU parliament to bring about change from within. Business professor Douglas Webber just wrote a book on political crises in the EU. He sees this as a defining moment.

DOUGLAS WEBBER: Since the first elections in 1979, the Parliament has been dominated by pro-European parties. And for the first time, there is a threat of a very strong anti-European presence in the European Parliament.

BEARDSLEY: In France, the pro-EU Renaissance Party has been airing ads that cast Sunday's vote in stark terms. Showing scenes of migrant boats and environmental disasters, they ask, do you want to solve immigration or be overpowered by it? Do you want to ignore climate change or act? Union or division - you decide which way Europe heads. Macron calls this an existential moment for Europe.



BEARDSLEY: Going back to national borders will mean the loss of freedom for our citizens and the loss of a massive common market for our farmers and startups, he said. And only a united Europe will be able to stand up to the U.S. and China.


CHANTELLE LIEB: (Speaking French).


BEARDSLEY: At a pro-Europe rally, retired lawyer Chantelle Lieb says, for her, the battle is personal.

LIEB: I'm from a mixed family, French and German, and it's very important for me because I was raised in a very European way.

BEARDSLEY: Lieb says, with the far-right gaining power, Europe is at a crossroads.

LIEB: You see what is happening in Poland and all the east countries. They go after the woman with abortion rights. They go after the press, the justice system.

BEARDSLEY: The stakes, she says, are high.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

MARTIN: And we'll hear more from Eleanor Beardsley tomorrow as the results of the EU parliamentary elections start coming in. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.