In an office building on the outskirts of Paris–headquarters for France’s far-right National Front party–Marine Le Pen elbows her way through a packed conference room, her blond hair bobbing above the television cameras. It’s 8:30 p.m. on the evening of May 25, and polling booths around Europe have just closed. An estimated 170 million Europeans have cast their ballots to send national representatives to the increasingly powerful European Parliament, and the results coming in are stunning. The parties that have long dominated the European political union since it was born out of the ashes of World War II in a passionate attempt to prevent the blood-drenched continent from ever going to war again have suffered unprecedented losses. The big winners are parties that are hostile to the E.U. itself. And among the former outliers of European politics now celebrating their newfound power, there may be no bigger winner than Le Pen, the leader of the National Front.
The right-wing party has won 25% of French votes, relegating French President François Hollande’s ruling Socialists to a paltry third place. “The people have spoken,” declares Le Pen, 45, who took over the National Front in 2011 from her elderly father Jean-Marie (who was once fined for denying Nazi war crimes after calling the Holocaust “a mere detail”). “Tonight is a massive rejection of the European Union.” The next day, Le Pen tells TIME that Europe will never be the same again. In Britain, the anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, bested three established British parties. Far-right parties in Austria, Sweden and Denmark also won big. Anti-E.U. leftists won in Greece–and a Greek neo-Nazi, anti-E.U. party also did well. Even Germany, Europe’s richest nation, saw a far-right party win its first seat in the E.U. Parliament. The total number of so-called Euroskeptic members in the 751-member body has jumped from 99 to 175, with an estimated 122 of those from rightist parties and the rest from the far left, according to VoteWatch Europe, a monitoring organization in Brussels partly funded by the European Parliament. That means nearly 1 in 4 E.U. lawmakers will now be opposed to the organization that pays their salaries. “I believe this is the beginning of the end of the E.U.,” Le Pen says. “I don’t think the E.U. will be surviving in a few years.”
If Le Pen succeeds in her mission, she will be at the forefront of a movement to undo what may be the 20th century’s boldest political project. Desperate to avoid another world war, the E.U.’s founding fathers dreamed of binding old enemies together in political and economic partnership, in the process enforcing peace and creating an economic market with global clout. The E.U. has been a remarkable success on both counts. Europeans from 28 countries can now travel thousands of miles without encountering a single border post or having to change currency. The union has doubled in size in the past decade, embracing erstwhile communist foes like Poland, Hungary and Romania. The E.U. even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for keeping this mass of 503 million people in relative harmony.
But while the masses are no longer waging war, the battle in Europe has now been joined–and the battleground in late May was the increasingly powerful European legislature, which passes laws all 28 member states must observe. The Parliament is based in the French city of Strasbourg; the European Commission, the body that implements the laws the Parliament passes, is in Brussels. The rulings that Strasbourg and Brussels make range from the very important–like rescuing European economies from collapse and imposing sanctions on Syria, Iran and Russia–to the more mundane. Until a few years ago, the E.U. regulated the shape of bananas–a response to the retail industry’s argument that it needed to know how many fit in a box. Anti-E.U. parties tend to see all decisions that emerge from the European Parliament as outside meddling in national affairs. And that’s what Le Pen and her ideological allies in other European countries are determined to stop.
The anti-E.U. parties will still form a minority in the Strasbourg Parliament, but they will likely be much more vocal than before. Le Pen intends to form an anti-E.U. parliamentary group for the first time. If she succeeds, she will be entitled to attend meetings of the legislature’s top leaders. She would also be able to become one of the E.U. rapporteurs, who report to Parliament on specific policy issues as policies are shaped in committee. A rapporteur’s “opinion carries a lot of weight,” according to the European Law Monitor, an independent information service.
Le Pen and her comrades now have momentum, and many hope to carry that into national elections, possibly to pressure their own legislatures into holding referendums about whether their home countries should stay in the E.U. The union is delicately constructed; one country’s exit could cause a crisis of confidence in the whole entity, severely affecting the euro’s value. Other countries could follow quickly.
Reeling from their thrashing, mainstream politicians are now taking stock of just how much damage has been inflicted. Having barely campaigned before the vote, European leaders now face a crucial question in shoring up the E.U.: Can the bigger parties, which still hold the majority, succeed in outwitting the anti-E.U. group, using their far deeper political experience? Until now, most leaders have brushed off the threat as a temporary aberration. That attitude now looks highly risky.
Having suffered through five years of recession and Brussels-imposed spending cuts, many Europeans are angry. Those in the rich northern countries like France and Britain are weary of bailing out their neighbors; the rescue packages for Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Cyprus and Greece have cost billions, and yet economic hardship continues.
For anti-E.U. candidates like Le Pen, such discontent has been golden. Barnstorming through France in her black cowboy boots, she was, for many French, a blast of fresh air compared with the cocooned elite in Paris. She pushed a simple campaign message: the E.U. controls your lives yet cares little about France, and it has turned your elected representatives into toothless toadies who rubber-stamp decisions from Brussels.
To many, the argument rang true. As her victory suggests, at least some support came from those who might once have squirmed at voting for the National Front, with its reputation for racism and xenophobia. Founded by Le Pen’s father in the early 1970s, the party immediately attracted many former military men who, like Le Pen, had fought in France’s brutal Algerian war. His daughter has worked hard to remake the Front’s image, zooming in on economic pain and high taxes.
Le Pen’s goal in the European Parliament is to dismantle the entire system from the inside. She tells TIME she intends first to derail the free-trade agreement Europe is currently negotiating with the U.S.–a high priority for President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to be in France on June 6 to attend events marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day. She will also fight to stop a new E.U. banking union, which many economists argue is key to ending the continent’s financial woes. And she wants to end the Schengen Agreement, which allows free travel between 26 E.U. countries–a core principle of the E.U. Le Pen’s aim is to chip away at Europe’s architecture until the structure cannot hold. “The E.U. is not reformable in its present form,” she says. “It has to disappear and be replaced by a Europe of nations that are free and sovereign. You cannot reform it just by adjustments.”
It’s tempting to dismiss Le Pen’s plan as unworkable. Europe’s populist leaders are maverick personalities–hardly given to cooperating on nitty-gritty lawmaking. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has rejected joining forces with Le Pen in a right-wing bloc, saying the Front is anti-Semitic. Some observers believe the anti-E.U. parties will soon fade from the spotlight. “The reality is that in the past, these guys have not been interested in actually doing anything,” says Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a pro-E.U. think tank in Brussels. “They hold big speeches for the national audiences, and then when there’s a directive on something, they’re nowhere to be seen.”
But Le Pen has no intention of fading away. She has an even bigger prize in sight: the French presidency. Hollande is deeply unpopular and could well lose his re-election bid in 2017, leaving the door open for the woman who has just thrashed his Socialists in the E.U. vote.
To most French voters, the idea of a President Le Pen still seems inconceivable, not to mention abhorrent. But her E.U. win has cracked open her political future. “Listen,” she says the day after the vote. “We’re the top party of France, and we won twice the votes of the party that has all of the power in France. So it is quite possible.” Still, it’s a big leap from far-right politician to President. And if she morphs into a successful Establishment leader, she could see her angry, impassioned base drift away. For now, Le Pen has her battle lines drawn. And they face north, to Brussels.
This appears in the June 09, 2014 issue of TIME.
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