What Was Macron Thinking?

Snap Elections and Political Turmoil Put France at a Critical Juncture, and Voters in an Uncomfortable Place

French president Emmanuel Macron shocked the nation when he called for snap elections, writes journalist Olivia Snaije. Now, voters will head to the polls to decide the country’s future. A Parisian reads the newspaper on the day left-wing parties formed the new coalition Le Nouveau Front Populaire. Courtesy of author.

Here in France, we had all expected the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally)—or the RN—to outperform in the European elections earlier this month. At 8 p.m. on June 9, the results confirmed the polls and our fears.

But we never expected the bombshell that President Emmanuel Macron dropped on us a mere hour later.

Sober, dressed appropriately for the dramatic moment in a black suit and tie, Macron announced that he would dissolve the lower house of France’s parliament, the National Assembly. With the far-right RN and Reconquête! parties winning nearly 37% of the votes in the European elections, Macron’s centrist party’s relative majority in France, already under strain, had lost credibility. He called for snap parliamentary elections, with the first round scheduled for this Sunday, June 30.

Le Monde, channeling the president’s allies and supporters, called his decision “an egotistical and solitary flight forward, reckless and risky, with potentially very serious consequences: an absolute majority for the National Rally or an ungovernable National Assembly; cohabitation or paralysis of the system.” People called Macron narcissistic, megalomaniacal, Jupiterian, Napoleonic.

In Paris, where the extreme right did not win in any neighborhood, the city is preparing for the onslaught of the 2024 Summer Olympics, which begin on July 26. Everywhere in France, school is nearly out, and people are getting ready for their holidays. Yet now we’re faced with a political whirlwind spinning faster than we can absorb. Its potential outcome is very serious indeed, and yet neither the people nor political parties have time to reflect calmly.

France’s National Assembly is comprised of 577 MPs, who are elected to five-year terms. In the last parliamentary elections, in June 2022, Macron’s Renaissance Party won only 245 seats, losing its absolute majority. The RN won 89 seats and became the largest single-party opposition group in parliament, behind the now defunct left-wing alliance NUPES, with 151 seats.

As in the rest of Europe, far-right ideas and parties have been on the rise in France—although here, following a short period of disgrace after World War II, extremist far-right militants and nationalistic populists have always hovered in the background. The RN is the former Front National (FN), founded in 1972 by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who brought together groups with varying extremist ideologies to create a political party—including fascists, and members of the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), a paramilitary terrorist group famous for attempting to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle in 1962. In 1986 then center-right President Jacques Chirac put in place a “cordon sanitaire” blocking off the extreme right to dissuade political alliances. But politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy blurred the lines between left and right, political scientist and sociologist Philippe Corcuff has observed—and since Le Pen took over from her father in 2011, renaming the party and working hard to make it more “socially acceptable,” the RN has steadily gained.

We’re faced with a political whirlwind spinning faster than we can absorb.

The party—and the right in general—have been further helped by Vincent Bolloré, a conservative Catholic billionaire media mogul accused by Reporters Without Borders in 2021 of intimidating and bullying journalists. And since Macron became president in 2017, he too has moved further to the right. His goal is to bring those drifting to the far-right back into the fold to preserve his majority. But the strategy has consistently failed, as we saw in the European election results.

Now, with the playing field upended, parties are scrambling to create alliances, and members are shedding allegiances. Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal, a prominent member of Reconquête!, left the party after a potential electoral pact between it and RN broke down. Eric Ciotti, head of the traditional right-wing party Les Républicains, announced he wanted to form an allegiance with the RN, taking his own party by surprise. (The party then voted to exclude him.) Jewish celebrity philosopher Alain Finkielkraut suggested he would vote for the RN—despite its origins being founded in antisemitic and racist ideologies—as did Nazi hunters Serge Klarsfeld and his son Arno, citing fear of immigrants from Muslim countries as a reason.

As retired diplomat Anis Nacrour put it, “It’s like billiard balls gone crazy, zigzagging and hitting all sides of the table.”

The various left-wing parties managed to pull together a coalition and program in record time to form a bloc, the Nouveau Front Populaire, or New Popular Front. But the hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is disliked by many for his confrontational and disruptive style.

We can only speculate why Macron thought calling snap elections was a good idea. Ever since the Renaissance Party lost its absolute majority in parliament during his second term, Macron has forced through several controversial laws. He relied on a constitutional gambit to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, bypassing a vote in the Assembly. He also has planned unpopular budget cuts for the fall. Perhaps Macron thought he would have to dissolve the National Assembly then anyway.

But forcing the French to choose sooner rather than later seems to be a terrible gamble. In French national parliamentary elections, there are two rounds of voting, and a party must win an absolute majority in the second round to rise to power. Even if the RN wins 37% in the first round on June 30, echoing the right-wing parties’ EU elections success, it will need many more votes in the second round, scheduled for July 7. In the week between the two votes, parties will scramble to form political alliances, and two frontrunner parties will emerge. The uncertainty of the outcome, with populism and charges of antisemitism versus anti-Zionism blurring the lines between left and right, gives us a feeling of being in a political maelstrom in which none of our choices feel true—except voting against the far-right. Earlier this week, on June 24, Macron wrote a letter to the French people urging us to vote and to choose the central bloc rather than the left-wing coalition or the far-right, of course. “This is our election and yours to make,” he ended the letter. This was disingenuous. It was Macron, after all, who had called for the vote.

In Paris, like other cities, we live in a bubble that is not representative of the rest of France. Most regions voted for the RN. This seems inconceivable to me when I see how people co-exist in my ethnically mixed neighborhood of Belleville. In the large nearby park, the Buttes Chaumont, older tattooed Kabyle women sit on benches, Chinese women hold group dance classes, a multi-ethnic and multi-generational crowd practice Tai Chi, and schoolchildren of every color babble as they skip across the park after a nature walk.

When French people are asked what they worry about most, they say purchasing power and the environment. But immigration tops the agenda for right and far-right parties and permeates the political discourse—even if the number of immigrants to France is average for Europe, and behind Germany or Spain. And, while most everyone I know agrees that it has problems, we strongly feel part of the European community. The RN’s nationalism and xenophobia are unacceptable.  In the 2022 presidential elections, Parisians breathed a sigh of relief when Macron edged out Marine Le Pen. Last week, an IPSOS poll showed that 62% of French people intend to vote on June 30 with the RN still leading at 31.5% with the New Popular Front not far behind at 29.5%. We can only hope that across France people will realize just how critical this juncture is.


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