There are still plenty of people in Europe who support the dream of an ever closer European Union. But the voices of those who don’t are now louder than ever—and European leaders ignore these voices at their peril.
Voters across France went to the polls on Sunday to cast ballots in first-round regional elections. The far-right Front National (FN) finished first in six new “super regions” and won the largest share of the national vote. Its support remains strongest in Provence and in the north, but the FN’s presence is now felt across the country.
The success of the FN and its leader Marine Le Pen has something in common with the forces lifting Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz in polls of U.S. Republican presidential contest. Voters are frustrated by government impotence in dealing with a perceived influx of immigrants, frightened by terrorist threats and thoroughly disgusted with conventional politics.
What does the FN’s showing mean for France and for Europe? Le Pen, who refers to herself as Madame Frexit, will call for a popular referendum on the future of France’s membership in the E.U. “They’re voting in Britain,” she’ll argue, “so why not here?” France’s center-right Republican Party, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, will have to find a way to claw back some of Le Pen’s voters, just as David Cameron has siphoned support from the anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party in British elections earlier this year. France’s politics will shift further to the right as public patience with the country’s center-left government and President Francois Hollande runs low.
Still just as Britain is unlikely to vote its way out of Europe, Marine Le Pen remains a long shot to ever become President de la Republique. And France, a core architect and central pillar of Europe’s union, is even more unlikely than Britain to ever vote to leave the E.U.
But the tidal wave of Muslim migrants, the anger and fear they produce among some, the continued risk of terrorist attack and the willingness of opportunistic populist politicians to link the two issues demand close watch in the coming year. Outcomes that once seemed unthinkable are now a lot more plausible. After all, nothing can change a voter’s mind faster than a jolt of fear.