In the space of four days, France and the U.K. have defied the theory that European politics is shifting decisively toward the anti-immigration right.

Instead, the results of recent elections confirm that the bigger trend is fragmentation. Divisions are multiplying in European societies, making it harder for leaders to claim a clear mandate—or, in many countries, to cobble together a coherent governing majority at all.

France’s fractured new National Assembly will make forming a government more difficult than at any time since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Any multiparty government is likely to have little holding it together, apart from shared opposition to the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen, which performed worse than expected in Sunday’s vote.

A dysfunctional government could yet benefit Le Pen in her attempt to win the French presidency in three years’ time, however.

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer walks outside Number 10 Downing Street to greet Scottish Labour MPs, in London, Britain, July 9, 2024. REUTERS/Chris J. Ratcliffe

The U.K.’s electoral system is papering over the cracks. Last Thursday Labour won nearly two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons with about one-third of the vote. Britain’s long-dominant parties, Labour and the Conservatives, won just over 57% of the vote, their lowest combined share in over a century.

Many voters preferred small parties including centrists, environmentalists and the populist right. Turnout was also the second-lowest in a century.

As voters’ loyalty to traditional parties declines, results are becoming more volatile from ballot to ballot. Support for established parties of the center right and center left is declining as voters turn to upstarts. New movements can rise fast but also fade quickly, as French President Emmanuel Macron ’s pro-business centrists have discovered.

Patience with new governments is short. Being the incumbent can be a liability at a time of pervasive frustration with politics.

“Democracy is in crisis,” said Matteo Renzi , a former Italian prime minister. “The first problem is that when you vote, things don’t always change.”

The U.S.’s electoral system has maintained the dominance of two parties, avoiding the fragmentation of Europe’s parliamentary democracies. Instead, many of the same divisions play out inside the Republican and Democratic parties, including the contest between establishment and antiestablishment factions.

American voters are no happier than Europeans about the political choices on offer. Former President Donald Trump and President Biden are the least-popular pair of candidates for the White House in at least three decades, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center published in June.

Much of Europe is struggling with chronically low economic growth and strained public finances, leaving governments with little room to maneuver. Many Europeans’ living standards have taken a blow from post-Covid inflation and the energy-price spike that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Immigration, environmental policies, electricity bills, low wages and overstretched healthcare services are among the sources of discontent with the performance of the political system.

Political fragmentation is making countries such as France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands less governable just as geopolitical pressures on Europe are growing.

Russian expansionism is challenging the continent’s post-Cold War international order. Chinese industries are threatening to swamp key European manufacturing sectors. The possible return of Trump as American president could upend Europe’s security arrangements as well as trade with the U.S.

In most of the big European countries and in the U.S., far more voters say they are dissatisfied with democracy than satisfied, according to a survey by opinion-polling group Ipsos published in December. Among the nations surveyed, only Swedes said they were happy with how their democracy is performing.

“People have good reason to believe their political systems are not delivering. That doesn’t mean they know what they want,” said Ivan Krastev , head of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria.

“Voters feel lost in a labyrinth, so they run in different directions, hoping the exit is there,” said Krastev. Rapid disappointment often follows, and the next election can bring large swings. “The political cycle is shortening,” he said.

British voters turned overwhelmingly against the incumbent Conservatives, but Labour’s win wasn’t accompanied by any great outpouring of hope or optimism. Many observers say the U.K.’s lack of economic growth or fiscal elbow room could quickly lead to disappointment with new Prime Minister Keir Starmer .

“No one really believes anyone can fix anything,” said Anand Menon , director of London-based think tank UK in a Changing Europe. “It’s not unusual for Western countries in recent times. What recent elections have in common is a mood of anti-politics,” he said.

Germany is showing how hard it can be to govern when voters are split between established and upstart, moderate and radical parties.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz leads a fractious coalition of center-left Social Democrats, pro-business Free Democrats and Greens whose contradictions have mired it in a constant fight over priorities.

The result is that Europe’s most important government struggles to achieve even basic tasks such as adopting a budget, let alone meet the growing international expectations that Germany should play a bigger role in European security.

The Scholz government’s approval ratings have collapsed. The Social Democrats won only 14% of the vote in June’s European Parliament elections, their worst result in a nationwide ballot since the 19th century.

Meanwhile the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has established itself as part of the country’s political landscape, despite some of its officials’ attempts to rehabilitate the image of the Third Reich. The AfD remains unpalatable as a coalition partner for most, but its size, especially in eastern Germany, is making it harder for others to reach a governing majority.

Established center-right parties are struggling to find a strategy that halts the long-term growth of far-right rivals.

The U.K. Conservatives have found that even leaving the European Union and cracking down on asylum seekers didn’t stop the populist challenge from Nigel Farage, a longtime Brexit champion and Trump supporter whose Reform UK party won 14% of the vote last week, splitting the British right.

France’s results on Sunday show that most voters still see National Rally as a dangerously radical force, including for its attitude to Muslim minorities and the EU. Many people voted tactically for parties ranging from the center to the far left to keep National Rally from winning power.

Renzi, the former Italian prime minister, said France might now have to find an equivalent to Mario Draghi , the former head of the European Central Bank who led Italy’s disparate multiparty government after the pandemic. There isn’t an obvious candidate in France who commands similar esteem, however.

When Draghi’s coalition collapsed, election victory in 2022 went to Italy’s anti-immigration right, led by current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni .

Many French observers say that a wobbly multiparty government could similarly boost Le Pen in the country’s next presidential election in 2027.

“It depends on which candidates emerge in the center or among conservatives,” said Renzi. “Nobody would have bet on Macron becoming president a year before he was elected.”

What is clear are the high stakes for the continent, said Renzi. “The next French presidential election could change everything in Europe.”

People gather to protest against the French far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally – RN) party, at Place de la Republique, following results in the first round of the early 2024 legislative elections, in Paris, France, July 3, 2024. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Write to Marcus Walker at