Posted on May 23, 2024

European Elections: Le Pen Officially Breaks With German Ally AfD

Clément Guillou et al., Le Monde, May 22, 2024

The Rassemblement National (RN) prefers the risk of isolation to that of controversy. Two weeks ahead of the European elections, it is breaking with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, one of its main allies in the Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament. “We will no longer sit with them in the next mandate,” said Alexandre Loubet, director of the campaign led by Jordan Bardella, who made a final decision on Tuesday, May 21, speaking to the newspaper Libération.

Contacted by Le Monde, the RN confirmed the break, made “following recent statements by the AfD.” Marine Le Pen had been preparing to make the decision official. “My mind is made up about the AfD,” the three-time presidential candidate said in private last week. “A movement that has fallen under the sway of its most radical fringe no longer seems to me to be a reliable and suitable ally.”

This was before the publication, in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and in the Financial Times, of an interview with Maximilian Krah, the lead AfD candidate in the June 9 election. The MEP sparked yet another scandal for his party by arguing that not every member of the SS, the paramilitary organization central to Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian project, should be automatically be considered a criminal: “One million soldiers wore the SS uniform. Can you really say that because someone was an officer in the Waffen-SS they were a criminal?”

‘The elephant in the room’

Far from fearing the consequences that the RN might draw from the provocations and legal proceedings in which his movement is mired, Krah took advantage of the interview with La Repubblica to challenge his French partner: “If we are expelled, I doubt they will manage to reach the number of seven countries required to form a group.”

Tired of having to explain itself at every AfD controversy, the RN is therefore taking the risk of lengthy negotiations in Brussels and Strasbourg, and of having to form a small group, deprived of representatives from Europe’s largest country. As Le Pen herself told Le Monde in December 2023, “It’s difficult to envisage a European strategy that ignores the Germans. It’s the elephant in the room.”

However, a “European strategy” is the least of the concerns of a party that is only looking ahead to 2027 and has never really been invested in European democracy. The separation between the two partners seemed inevitable to preserve the RN’s image. Over the past few months, the AfD has been putting to the test the “co-ownership” staged by Le Pen to justify its links with parties with a declared radicalism.

On January 10, the German investigative website Correctiv revealed a secret meeting held on November 25, 2023, in Potsdam, near Berlin, where AfD leaders met with representatives of the neo-Nazi movement to discuss a large-scale deportation project targeting foreigners and Germans of foreign origin. AfD staff were summoned to Paris, and a written request for explanations was made. Since then, the RN has never received a satisfactory clarification from its partner on this “remigration” project.

“The decision [regarding AfD] will be up to Jordan [Bardella], but I don’t intend to spend the election campaign justifying myself,” Le Pen had warned during a January 25 meeting with the press. In fact, she was the one who made the decision, “like everything else that happens in the house!” laughed one party executive.

A German party ‘under surveillance’

Internally, party spokespeople have been instructed “not to comment further” on the decision, which the RN justifies by the sensitivity of the subject: the crimes of the Nazi regime. Historically, the party’s electoral progress has long been slowed by its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial remarks. In November 2023, Bardella had denied the anti-Semitism of the party’s co-founder, beginning the RN’s project of seducing the Jewish electorate.

Since the Correctiv investigation, Le Pen has waited four months and numerous other incidents before definitively distancing herself from the AfD. Suspected of illegally receiving money from Russian and Chinese sources, Krah is now the subject of two investigations opened by the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor. At the end of April, a former employee was arrested in Dresden on suspicion of spying for China. Several German media outlets have since revealed that investigators are looking into suspicious money transfers between them and their former employer.

More recently, the courts have dealt the AfD two blows: on May 14, Björn Höcke, leader of the radical wing of the far-right party, was fined for using a slogan from the SA, the paramilitary militia of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party; the day before, a court had authorized the domestic intelligence service to keep the far-right formation “under surveillance.”

A third far-right group?

By disassociating itself from the AfD, the RN also hopes to escape the “cordon sanitaire” to which its European Parliament group is currently subjected, and which prevents it from occupying positions of power in Strasbourg. The nationalist and populist right is currently split between two groups, ID and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), of which Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and Spain’s Vox are members. The ECR was created by the British Tories, who felt that the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) was not sufficiently sovereignist, and has escaped the traditional stigmatization of far-right parties in European parliamentary life. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, meanwhile, has been looking for a host family ever since it excluded itself from the EPP.

In recent months, as polls for the European elections have shown the far right gaining ground across the EU, the Brussels bubble has been buzzing with rumors of possible alliances. The RN claims to be in a position to keep a large number of IDs around it, and to win over groups not currently represented in the European Parliament.

The RN hopes to continue working with other radical movements: the Flemish party Vlaams Belang or Matteo Salvini’s Lega, whose lead candidate, General Roberto Vannacci, considers that homosexuals are not “normal people” and that a Black athlete cannot represent “Italianness” because of their skin color. The RN also plans to retain MEPs from Estonia (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia), the Czech Republic (Freedom and Direct Democracy) and possibly Denmark (Danish People’s Party) – the latter, Anders Vistisen, immediately approved of the RN’s decision to reject the AfD. The ID group should also be able to count among its ranks the Portuguese party Chega and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, both of which will be sending elected representatives to Strasbourg.

‘Common ground’ with Giorgia Meloni

Another of Le Pen’s xenophobic, pro-Russian allies, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), is leading in the polls in Austria. Historically close to both the RN and the AfD, it will face a conflict of loyalties. It has links with the figurehead of the Austrian identitarians, Martin Sellner, who moderated the Potsdam meeting evoking a “remigration” plan. “Remigration is an asset and there is nothing to say against this “secret plan,” said Herbert Kickl, leader of the FPÖ, in February. “It’s exactly what we need to get them all home.”

Le Pen is also dreaming of forming a group with Hungary’s Fidesz party, which the RN has been courting for many months. This is not the first time that the RN has tried to forge closer ties with Orban’s party, but until now the Hungarian prime minister has always refused such an alliance. Among other things, he was demanding that Le Pen break away from the AfD. This has now been done, but there’s no guarantee that it will be enough to convince him. On February 1, Orban said he was “ready” to join ECR “after the elections.”

Afraid of being marginalized by Meloni, the Polish Las and Justice Party (PiS), which until now had refused any rapprochement with Fidesz because of its pro-Russian stance, said it was “open” to it… But Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s Czech Civic Democratic Party is threatening to leave the ECR group if this announcement goes ahead.

Meloni, for her part, is not remaining inactive. The Italian prime minister makes no secret of her desire to unite Europe’s eurosceptic parties so that they can form a majority in Parliament and replace the coalition between the EPP, the Social Democrats and the Renew liberals. On May 19, she took part (remotely) in a meeting organized by Vox, which Le Pen attended. The French party leader, who does not enjoy the best relations with Meloni, was more affable, mentioning their “common points,” but none of her supporters had any illusions about a possible alliance.

The big maneuvers on the far right of the European Parliament have only just begun, and even though Eric Zemmour’s Reconquête! announced its rallying to ECR on February 7, we’ll have to wait for the results of the June 9 elections to see the results.