How a far-right French government could affect small boats crossings in the Channel

France is one step closer to a far-right government following National Rally's success in the first round of elections – but what does this mean for the UK?

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen celebrates the performance of her National Rally party after the release of projections based on the first round of France's election results. (Alamy)
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen celebrates the performance of her National Rally party after the release of projections based on the first round of France's election results. (Alamy)

Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party has won the largest vote share in the first round of France's parliamentary elections and will push for an overall majority when voters cast their ballots in a second round on Sunday.

It brings France one step closer to having its first far-right government since the Vichy regime of the Second World War, with plans to impose tough new rules on immigration, including restrictions on family reunifications and reduced access to medical services for illegal immigrants.

Some experts have suggested that a far-right government could potentially lead to an increase in the number of small boat crossings to the UK.

With the UK will also go to the polls this week, what might a new, far-right leadership in Paris mean for relations between two incoming governments?

France and the UK have been working closely on the issue of migration, with a deal between the two countries seeing French police officers in Calais intercepting migrants before they can cross the Channel to Britain.

With an estimated 12,646 people making the perilous crossing from 1 January to 22 June this year, according to the Migration Observatory, the problem clearly hasn't been solved, and experts are doubtful that a National Rally-led government, despite its tough rhetoric, is going to make much of an impact.

"The coastline from Dunkirk to Brest is 760km long – so even for a government who would be so inclined, it would be difficult to have enough police officers to cover the entire border," says Douglas Webber, professor of political science at INSEAD in Fontainebleau.

"I don't think the new French extreme-right government would be any more sympathetic towards the concerns of the UK than the current French government," Webber adds.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, from a Border Force vessel following a small boat incident in the Channel, as migrant Channel crossings near 10,000 for the year so far. Picture date: Friday May 24, 2024. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Despite its anti-immigration rhetoric, National Rally may not be as tough on Channel Crossings as expected, some experts have suggested. (Getty Images)

"It would certainly be a more nationalistic government, more inclined to promote their narrow conception of French national interests."

It's anti-immigrant stance is a key pillar of National Rally's policies.

Asked in 2023 how Britain and France could work together on this issue of asylum, party president Le Pen indicated her priority would be the stop asylum seekers coming to France in the first place. "Britain wants to protect its borders and therefore prevent illegal immigrants from entering the UK. They happen to come from France,” she said, according to the Telegraph.

“We have to have the capacity, Great Britain and France bilaterally, to be able to go and see the countries from which these illegal immigrants originate to make joint flights, to send the illegal immigrants back to their country of origin."

She added she had no problem with the UK using its fleet to "send illegal immigrants back to their country of origin".

Webber says the government could decide there is enough of a "convergence of British and French interests" for Paris to launch a crackdown on boat crossings, as making life harder for Channel migrants could dissuade them from coming to France in the first place.

"Whether it is technically feasible is another matter," says Webber, who "from a technical perspective" says he is not sure if there is much more the police could be doing, particularly as whoever comes into power will be inheriting a deficit of €154bn (£131bn) and will be under pressure to tighten their belt.

While National Rally has made pledges to bring in protectionist economic measures and increase public spending, the party said in June that it would hold back on a number of its flagship policies, Politico reported.

Furthermore, while the issue of Channel crossings is perceived as a big challenge by the UK government, Webber says it "isn't such a big issue in France", suggesting this is unlikely to be a top priority for National Rally.

Dan Sohege, director of human rights advocacy group Stand for All, suggests that a far-right government in France could potentially increase the number of small boat crossings to the UK.

"Governments which base their rhetoric on 'reducing immigration', of any type, tend to focus on preventing people being in their territory," he says.

"It would not serve the interests of a far-right party to collaborate on policies which would prevent people leaving France to seek asylum in the UK therefore.

"There will be a lot of talk about collaboration on stopping irregular migration, as we have seen with talks between Sunak and Meloni in Italy, however, the reality of the situation is that domestic politics will trump international agreements, meaning a likelihood of reduced cooperation in practice when it comes to directly preventing people crossing the Channel."

Webber says that a far-right government in France "will certainly have a more negative and more critical attitude" towards free-trade agreements negotiated by the EU with third countries, "including the UK".

He says National Rally will be "keen to prevent any liberalisation of agriculture and will be keen to protect farmers" and more generally will be hostile to agreements that "concern the opening up of the French economy".

"They might not be inclined to agree to anything which would make life in the City of London any easier", he adds.

Despite Le Pen's previous campaign for a so-called "Frexit", her party has since ditched its ambition to leave the European Union outright.

Marine Le Pen, leader the French far-right, arrives at the National Rally party headquarters, Monday, July 1, 2024 in Paris. France's National Rally surged into the lead in the first round of legislative elections, according to results released early Monday, bringing the far-right party to the brink of power and dealing a major blow to President Emmanuel Macron's centrists in an election that could set the country, and Europe, on a starkly different course. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)
Marine Le Pen's party has ditched its ambition of 'Frexit', but could still find ways to weaken the EU's power. (Alamy)

"Brexit turned out to be very counter-productive for the UK and I think this is the overall perception in France," says Webber.

However, he suggests National Rally could adopt a Margaret Thatcher-esque stance of piling pressure on the bloc for special arrangements for France, including the ability to toughen up border controls and to reduce France's contributions to the EU budget.

He says some of National Rally's policies could result in a "Frexit by stealth", which could weaken the bloc's power.

"If one member state starts disobeying EU law, it creates incentives for other countries to follow the same pattern," he says.

While they have no shortage of ideological differences, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said he would work with a far-right French government on Channel crossings.

He told the i: “We will obviously work with whoever’s in power in France or any other country. I don’t think that’s an inhibitor for a better set of working relations.

“I do think with our border security command, which will be cross-border – linking not just prosecutors and police, but obviously security and intelligence agencies – that is a game changer in what we can do."

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to a media outlet during an election campaign stop at a pub near Milton Keynes, England, Monday, July 1, 2024. Britain goes to the polls on July 4. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Labour leader Keir Starmer has indicated he would be wiling to work with a far-right government in France. (Alamy)

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy's approach is to engage with governments whatever their ideological leanings, the New Statesman says, having spent time with conservative Republicans in the US including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Senator Lindsey Graham.

For this reason, it is likely a Labour government would be just as open to working with right-wing populist governments in Europe.

Le Pen has previously indicated her support for the Lancaster House treaties, signed by the UK and France in 2010 to ensure defence co-operation, so while a question mark may still hang over the issue of Channel crossings, it may not be too much of a challenge for Labour to cooperate with National Rally on other security issues.