1 July 2024

France will pay for Macron’s folly


Deep down, Emmanuel Macron always knew this day would come.

‘If we do not get a grip, whether it be in a few months, in five or ten years, the National Front will be in power,’ Macron wrote in his book ‘Revolution’, which came out a few months before he was elected president of France in 2017.

Flash forward to 2024, and it looks like Macron’s prophecy is about to come true. The National Front, which has since rebranded as the National Rally, is on the brink of power.

On Sunday, the far-right party won the first round of France’s snap parliamentary elections. Its nationalist coalition claimed a whopping 33% of the vote. It was followed by the New Popular Front, a left-wing alliance, which garnered 28.5%. Macron’s centrist coalition, Together, lagged behind with only 22%.

The results aren’t final: France doesn’t have a first-past-the-post system. There will be a second and final round of voting next Sunday, on 7 July. In each constituency, the two candidates who received the highest vote tallies – or three candidates if they all cleared 12.5% – will face off. Only then will we know the exact composition of the next French parliament.

But projections make it clear that the Far Right will be the dominant force. The National Rally and its allies could win between 255 and 295 seats. The overall majority is at 289 seats, but 255 or more would still be enough to form a minority government.

This is a worrying prospect. Marine Le Pen has gone to great lengths to soften the image of the National Rally since the days of her father, Jean-Marie, a convicted Holocaust denier. But make no mistake: it still poses a grave threat to the French republic. The National Rally is an authoritarian, xenophobic party antithetical to the republican values of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.

Macron’s centrist bloc has totally collapsed. Not only will Together be unable to form the next government, it won’t even be the main opposition. It’s predicted to win between 90 and 125 seats, down from 250. The New Popular Front, which could gain between 120 and 140 seats, will be the main opposition.

This fiasco could – and should – have been avoided. Parliamentary elections didn’t have to happen for another three years. The blame lies squarely with Macron.

Three weeks ago, the National Rally triumphed at the EU elections. It got 31% of the vote compared to 14% for Macron’s party. It was a blow for the president, but it didn’t threaten the stability of his minority government.

The story could have ended there, and France could have enjoyed its Olympic summer. But that wasn’t counting on Macron. Although he was under no obligation, he dissolved parliament and called snap elections.

The president hoped the surprise move would stun his opponents and win him an outright majority. ‘I’ve been preparing this for weeks, and I’m thrilled!’ he told confidantes, according to Le Monde. ‘I threw my unpinned grenade at their feet. Now, we will see how they deal with it…’

As it turns out, the president’s opponents dealt with it rather well. In the end, the grenade blew up in Macron’s face, not theirs.

The National Rally had been preparing for this moment for years. They had candidates ready to run in every constituency. And they made a pact with Eric Ciotti, the president of LR, a mainstream right-wing party. (The LR top brass, to their credit, denounced Ciotti.)

Meanwhile, left-wing parties all united under the banner of the New Popular Front. But don’t be fooled by the feel-good name: it’s an unholy alliance that includes France Unbowed, the far-left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Many France Unbowed representatives trade in brutal, antisemitic rhetoric. After the 7 October attacks, they refused to call Hamas ‘terrorists’.

Rather than thwarting the rise of the Far Right, the New Popular Front fuelled it. There was never any chance it could win enough seats to form a government. By allying with France Unbowed, left-wing leaders limited their appeal. It was both a moral and a strategic mistake.

Mainstream parties of the Left, Centre and Right should have instead formed a republican bloc. Edouard Philippe, the former prime minister, advocated for it. Alas, his words fell on deaf ears.

Theoretically, such a bloc could still emerge now. ‘Faced with the National Rally, the time has come for a broad, clearly democratic and republican rally for the second round,’ Macron said on Sunday night. But the chances of it succeeding are slim. The parties are too divided and Macron is too unpopular.

This is a grave time for French democracy. The Far Right could soon be in power for the first time since the Vichy regime during World War II. And the Far Left is likely to grow in importance in the next parliament.

The atmosphere in France is explosive. Tensions are running high, and there are fears that there could be riots if the National Rally wins next week. Macron himself warned last week that a victory of ‘the extremes’ would precipitate ‘civil war’.

Whatever comes next, France is about to enter a dark chapter in its history.

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Dr Theo Zenou is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.