Voters are mad as hell in the UK and France

It's one of many similarities with the U.S. election.

July 3, 2024, 12:02 PM

There is a lot of voting happening around the globe this year. Heck, there's a lot of voting happening around the globe this week. On Thursday, voters go to the polls in the United Kingdom, where the center-right Conservative Party, which has been in power for 14 years, is expected to be trounced by the center-left Labour Party. And last weekend, France held the first round of voting in snap parliamentary elections, with the far-right National Rally party seeing historic success. Now, centrist and left parties are attempting to unify to stop the National Rally from making even more gains in runoff elections this Sunday.

It's easy to focus on the many differences between these elections and the U.S. election — parties in power for more than a decade, 12.5 percent runoff thresholds, six-week campaigns (?!) — but there are also a lot of similarities in the political climate of these three democracies. Along with a general fatigue with the incumbent party (voters everywhere tend to dislike one party being in power for too long, although the definition of "too long" differs), there are three key ways these elections are similar.

Nobody likes inflation

The COVID-19 pandemic rattled economies all over the world, and dozens experienced sudden spikes in inflation like what the U.S. saw. In 37 of 44 nations with advanced economies, the average annual inflation rate in the first quarter of 2022 was at least twice what it was in the first quarter of 2020, according to a Pew Research Center study from that year. This included France and the U.K., and the political ramifications have been equally pronounced.

The European Central Bank has begun to cut back its record high interest rates, and in France, the EU's second-largest economy, inflation has been cooling over the past year from its peak in early 2023. In June, France's Consumer Price Index — a common measure of inflation — was at 2.5 percent over the year prior, down from 2.6 percent in May.

But, just like in the U.S., the drop in inflation hasn't necessarily given voters a rosier view. More than three-quarters of French respondents said the current economic situation in their country was bad in a recent Pew Research Center survey. Granted, France's economy is a lot weaker than the U.S.'s, so the public discontent is not totally unwarranted, but this explains why politicians on all points of the political spectrum have been promising to cut taxes, freeze prices and increase the minimum wage in an attempt to woo financially anxious voters.

Cost of living has remained a top issue in the election and has partly driven French voters' sudden lurch to the right. Purchasing power, inequality and inflation were among the top issues for voters heading into the election, according to a Financial Times/Ipsos poll. And a plurality of respondents (25 percent) in that poll said they trust the National Rally the most when it comes to the economy.

In the U.K., high inflation rates have combined with stagnant economic growth* to cause a cost-of-living crisis. Inflation peaked in the U.K. in October 2022 at 11.1 percent, higher even than the U.S.'s peak of 9.1 percent in June of that year. And though the rate of inflation has since dropped, prices are still high — food prices are 20 percent above what they were at this point in 2021, and record numbers of people are relying on food banks or sleeping on the streets.

This has created a particularly dim view of the economy among voters: 78 percent of Brits said the economy is in poor shape in a recent Pew Research Center survey, some of the grimmest views of any country Pew surveyed this year. But unlike the voters on the other side of the Channel, U.K. voters are expected to pivot left in response to the economic discontent, tossing out the incumbent Conservatives.

Immigration is a hot-button issue

Inflation isn't the only common ground across these elections: Immigration is also weighing on the minds of voters on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.K., voters cite immigration as one of their top issues about as often as the economy, according to polling from Ipsos, and it's considered one of the "big four" election issues alongside the economy, inflation and the national health care system.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was a major driving force behind Brexit — the 2016 vote to leave the European Union — yet immigration has continued to rise in the U.K. Net migration (the difference between the number of people who moved to the U.K. and those who left) was over 600,000 in 2022, its highest level ever. And the related issue of undocumented migrants arriving to the U.K. by boat has also continued to be a challenge that gets many voters fired up.

Brits are even more dissatisfied with the government's handling of immigration now than they were just before Brexit, according to polling from Ipsos and British Future: In February, 69 percent of respondents said they were very or fairly dissatisfied with the government's handling of immigration, compared with 62 percent in April 2016. And the share of U.K. adults who say the level of immigration is "too high" has crept up over the last two years, according to polling from YouGov.

"There are two immigration stories, right? There is a whole story about legal migration, which is becoming less popular everywhere," said Ben Ansell, a professor of comparative democratic institutions at the University of Oxford. "But what's really, really unpopular is the perception that there is a group of immigrants who you can't stop from coming into your country. And that's the same issue you have in the States."

Similarly, though France has seen average levels of immigration compared to other EU countries, and while acceptance of immigrants has actually been on the rise, a recent wave of xenophobic sentiment has helped grow the National Rally's popularity. The far-right party has pledged to reduce immigration, which it views as a security threat, and increase deportations. As the results from Sunday show, this message appeals to a wide swath of French voters.

The rise of the far right

That brings us to yet another aspect these elections share with the U.S. Just as MAGA and Freedom Caucus-aligned Republicans have gained power within the American GOP, far-right parties in the U.K. and especially France are playing an outsized role in this summer's elections there too.

In France, President Emmannuel Macron decided to call the snap election after the far right increased its representation in the European parliament elections last month, and the results from the first round of voting this past weekend show the National Rally in the lead. Sunday's runoffs will determine whether the party gains a majority of seats — or at least enough to have the biggest say in a fractured parliament.

Currently, non-National Rally parties are trying to coordinate to defeat National Rally candidates in seats that are hosting runoffs by having weaker candidates in three-way races drop out to avoid splitting the vote. (In France, runoff elections can have two, three or even four candidates.) This is a strategy parties have historically used in France to great effect, but there's less consensus this time around. Projections after the first round of voting give the National Rally between 260 and 310 seats, with 289 being an absolute majority. And while Macron would remain president until 2027 regardless, a far-right majority government could upend French politics, and Macron's power to stop it would be limited.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., though the center-left Labour Party is widely expected to take power, the far right is playing a role in Old Blighty's elections too. Nigel Farage, a former European Parliament member who pushed for the implementation of Brexit by forming the Brexit Party, returned as leader of the party (now called the Reform Party) this year. The party has gained enough support to eat away further at what's left of the Conservative vote, according to Ansell.

"So is that a populist revolt in the U.K.? Well, it's hard to know, because it's only like 10 or 15 percent of people. But on the other hand, it matters in the sense of it's killing the center right," he said.

Ansell noted that much of the widely publicized far-right drift in Europe in the first half of the 2010s largely fizzled out, but a new wave has emerged in recent years with far-right victories in Italy, the Netherlands and the European Parliament. Similarly, in the U.S., Trump's 2016 victory suggested a new wave of populism, but it stalled with President Joe Biden's election in 2020. Now, the far right and Trump are once again gaining steam — though, of course, their future will depend on how millions of Americans choose to vote in November.


*Again, unlike in the U.S., where economic indicators beyond inflation have been strong.

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