Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Emmanuel Macron is gambling with France’s future – and Europe’s

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Emmanuel Macron, the man who likes to talk about Europe, left no time for talking about Europe. His political stunt yesterday to call snap parliamentary elections in France has deflected all attention from the weekend’s European Parliament vote back to national politics. French political parties now have three weeks to prepare.

In the European parliamentary election in France, Macron’s list was led by Valérie Hayer – and it suffered a proper defeat, in line with what the polls predicted. The leader of the hard-right National Rally (RN) Jordan Bardella’s list got 30 seats with 31.5 per cent of the votes. Macron’s alliance got less than half of that: 13 seats with 14.6 per cent. This is the same number of seats won by Rafaël Glucksmann’s list, from the left, which got 14 per cent.

Considering these results, the French legislative election looks like a Machiavellian move for Macron to shore up his power – with little consideration given to what this means for Europe. In the blink of an eye, the French president moved on from the European results and seemingly conceded to the demands of Marine Le Pen’s RN, which had been calling for a National Assembly election.

Nevertheless, Macron aims to win this gamble. Let’s go through the scenarios of this Assembly dissolution. Risk number one is the campaign itself. Macron puts all his stock in his ability to mobilise against the far right. His theme will be either-me-or-chaos, which is the same theme he has used since 2017 when he was first elected president. The assumption is that people may protest against Macron in a European election, but surely they will come to their senses in a national election. In his announcement last night, he warned the nationalists were a danger for France and for France’s place in Europe. He said they would impoverish and downgrade France. Will his firewall against the hard right work?

Giorgia Meloni in Italy proved to be a lesser threat once in government. Marine Le Pen and Bardella have been professionalising their party’s message for years. They are no longer considered a threat by voters. Bardella even appeals to centre-right Republicans with his discourse, while Le Pen has strengthened her support in small villages and towns. Macron’s expectation must be that RN is not ready to govern France, as it says it is. Can RN win the legislative elections? If so, can Bardella govern as prime minister? Maybe they will fail once in government, and this failure would compromise their chances in the 2027 presidential elections. This must be the assumption behind Macron’s move.

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But what if this is wrong? Everyone who saw the TV duel between the current prime minister Gabriel Attal and Bardella in late May would concede that Attal won – but still the votes increased for Bardella. He was the anti-hero who received the sympathy points. How can Macron’s team compete with someone like him? For RN to win the election, it must get 200 more seats than the 88 it currently has. This will be difficult, but not impossible, according to some polls. If RN comes first, France would be in a co-habitation scenario – when the president’s party is different from the prime minister’s. Macron would have to nominate a new prime minister, most likely Bardella. Even under this scenario, Macron could hope to gain.

Co-habitation worked for Jacques Chirac when he nominated the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin for the premiership in 1997, and four years earlier when François Mitterrand appointed Édouard Balladur from the centre-right Republicans. But back then, co-habitation was between traditional parties in the Fifth Republic, not between two new parties that had never been in power before 2017.

Can Macron’s Renaissance party win with just weeks to go? Or can it at least enlarge its majority (currently at 171)? Éric Ciotti, leader of the Republicans, has already indicated that he is not considering an alliance with Renaissance. This position may not be shared throughout his party, as the rumblings from high-profile party figures Nicolas Sarkozy and Gérald Larcher suggest.

Macron’s calculation could be that he can win over those in the Republican party who want to prevent a Le Pen presidency by any means. Macron may even pick up some from the left for the same reason. But the gravitational force Macron once had in the centre has gone. His discourse no longer electrifies, while there is polarisation towards the left and right.

If RN was to get into power and claim the prime minister’s job, a rift between Bardella and Le Pen could also risk its ascent to power. The two have differences, which may become more prominent once in power. Le Pen used to promise policies from the left while Bardella is strongly anchored on the right. If Bardella was to succeed as prime minister, how would this reflect on Le Pen?

Macron is putting himself on the line. If RN wins the elections, what does this mean for Macron as president, having just warned about the danger of a government run by the hard right? Would people conclude that Macron has to quit? This in itself may become a motivation for people to vote against the president’s party. Even if Macron was to stay and work with Bardella as his prime minister, it would weaken him as a leader at home and in Europe.

The timing of these elections could also reduce the chances of Ursula von der Leyen being confirmed for a second term as president of the European Commission. The European Council will decide on the candidate for the presidency at its meeting on 27 June, three days before the first round of the French legislative elections. If Macron does not want to express himself on this matter, her momentum may be lost. Macron could also make a bold move and suggest another candidate. For example, he could put forward the former Italian prime minister and head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, an offer that even Meloni may not be able to refuse.

Macron’s move may be bold, but it exposes vulnerabilities in his own camp and in Europe at a time when leadership is most needed. That is the real failure of Macron’s second term.

A version of this piece originally ran on Eurointelligence.

[See also: The rise of a new axis]

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