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Macron's risky bet worked

Macron's decision to dissolve the Assembly and call early elections now looks like a brilliant move. Although he and his allies finished in second place, the far right is far from power - at least for now

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

French President Emmanuel Macron shocked the country (and the world) in June by calling early elections, immediately after his party's defeat by the far-right National Rally in the European Parliament elections. Apart from a small group of advisers, Macron did not warn anyone about this, not even Prime Minister Gabriel Atal. However, this move seemed to be carefully planned. And for Macron, it turned out quite well because the defeat did not turn into a disaster.

After the parliamentary elections in 2022, Macron has only a relative majority in parliament. However, attracting votes from the left or the right (or passing laws by decree), his government introduced significant reforms, notably raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and tightening immigration policies. Nevertheless, Macron admitted to his father two months ago that the parliament is "chaotic" and that is why he will dissolve it. He was looking for a way out of the situation. His government certainly faces a vote of no confidence after the summer break and is likely to fall. Better to take the bull by the horns.

When Macron was first elected president in 2017, he was seen as a bulwark against the wave of far-right populism sweeping the West — first kicking Britain out of Europe and then bringing Donald Trump to power in the United States. Macron convincingly defeated Marine Le Pen of the National Front (as the National Rally was then called) with 66% to her 34%, a feat he repeated five years later, winning 59% of the vote.

However, Macron's popularity then began to decline, and support for the National Assembly grew rapidly. The first signals were already visible in the 2019 European Parliament elections, when the National Rally (RN) pushed Macron's party into second place - 23% against 22%. Five years later, in the June elections for the European Parliament, the RN party won, winning 31% of the vote, twice as much as Macron's Revival (15%).

Macron's argument for the immediate dissolution of the National Assembly was that, under scrutiny during the short election campaign, Marine Le Pen's party would begin to crack at the seams. Considering that Macron's presidential term ends in only three years, it was better to tackle the RN party now and try to deprive it of the wind in its sails, than to allow its support to grow further (which M. Le Pen could bring and to the Elysee Palace in 2027).

Before the first round of elections, the cracks really started to appear and the RN abandoned many of its important policies. A "national advantage" for French citizens over foreigners in matters of employment, housing and welfare? Not anymore, just the condition that people with dual citizenship are prohibited from holding strategic positions in the state. Reducing the value added tax to 5,5%? Only on gas, petrol and electricity. Retirement at 60? The RN party will, in fact, raise the minimum retirement age to 66 for some categories of the population. Leaving the European electricity market? Maybe yes, maybe no, the answer varies depending on who you ask. Only on immigration does the RN remain consistent, although much of what it proposes has already been done.

Nevertheless, the National Gathering won convincingly in the first round of the elections, receiving 33% of the vote, while Markon's centrist coalition took not even second, but third place, losing to the hastily formed alliance of the left, the New People's Front, which received 28%. However, the president's coalition improved its result by five percentage points compared to the elections for the European Parliament: it received 20 percent, partly due to the high turnout.

In the second round, the cracks started to turn into holes. The election campaign revealed an alarming number of neo-Nazis, racists and anti-Semites in the RN corps, and many of the party's candidates showed serious incompetence and unpreparedness. The "Russian issue" resurfaced (Marin Le Pen's presidential candidacy in 2017 was financed by the Kremlin) as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly supported Jordan Bardella, the new president of the RN.

As a result, the National Gathering failed to win an absolute majority, gaining far fewer seats than the required 289. In addition, the party finished in third place, behind the New Popular Front and Macron's coalition, whose results were much better than expected. Now in the French parliament, the dominant force is not the extreme right, but the left, although none of the electoral blocs (left, center and extreme right) has an absolute majority.

What's next now?

Although the possibility of forming a technocratic government for the duration of the Olympics is under consideration, the more likely scenario is that the "republican" parties, including the communists, greens, socialists, centrists and conservatives, will agree on a political program for next year.

This type of grand coalition has been foreign to French politics since the founding of De Gaulle's Fifth Republic, with its powerful president. However, it was typical of the Third and Fourth Republics and is well known to the rest of Europe. In the last few years, while Macron's government did not have a parliamentary majority, the potential of such arrangements became clear.

The irony is that it was precisely such a large coalition that brought Macron to the presidency in 2017. Three years is a long time in politics, and the challenge for the next government (whatever it may be) is to address the cost of living crisis. Macron has won the battle, but he hasn't won the war yet.

The author is an associate professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024. (translation: NR.)

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