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How France’s shock election could upend European politics

​Le Penn and Macron

Le Penn and Macron

Jess Frampton

French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call snap parliamentary elections on June 9 has misfired. A mere four days before voters head to the polls for the first of two rounds of voting this Sunday, the momentum is firmly with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, aka RN, party and the left-wing New Popular Front coalition.

As things stand, by the time the second round is over on July 7, France will be plunged into a prolonged period of political deadlock and disarray, with potentially massive implications for the future of Europe and Ukraine.

What was Macron thinking?

Macron surprised even his closest allies by calling early legislative elections moments after his camp’s 17-point defeat to Le Pen’s far right in this month’s European Parliament elections. This was a serious gamble for the president to take from a position of weakness, putting his own legacy as well as the stability of France – and Europe – on the line.

The gambit was probably based on several calculations.

First, Macron – who’d lost his parliamentary majority in the 2022 legislative elections – was likely to be forced into calling early elections later this fall in any case, when a flurry of censure motions was expected in the National Assembly on the 2025 deficit-cutting budget and other reforms. If Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, a Macronist, lost one or more of these motions, the president would have been pressured to dissolve the Assembly anyway. By doing it himself now instead, Macron figured he could own the Gaullist choice to take notice of the “will of the people,” seize the narrative, and control the timing to his advantage.

Second, Macron sought to call the electorate’s bluff by raising the stakes of the contest (or forcing a “moment of clarification,” as he called it). The president hoped that the far right’s record-high support at the EU level represented a protest vote that would collapse once the future of France itself was on the ballot, the far right’s incompetence and incoherent policies were under scrutiny, and moderates who stayed home on June 9 turned out. A national election was less structurally favorable to the far right than a European campaign, at least in theory.

Third, Macron was banking on the French left remaining hopelessly divided, after months of vicious infighting over the Ukraine and Gaza wars ended with a refusal to unite for the European elections. A fragmented left would have splintered one of the two political extremes and made Macron’s centrist alliance the only home for moderate left voters looking to thwart the radical right.

Even Napoleon had his Waterloo

Alas, it seems Macron miscalculated – badly.

Critically, the four main parties on the left – the Socialist Party, France Unbowed, the Greens, and the Communist Party – quickly derailed one of the president’s central assumptions by uniting to run a single campaign under the banner of the “New Popular Front,” aka NFP. While the NFP is a ramshackle alliance of opportunity that may well break down when confronted with real-world choices of government, it has nonetheless provided moderate leftists with an alternative way to block Le Pen that doesn’t require supporting Macron.

Macron’s confidence, despite poor opinion polling and personal approval ratings, that votes for the far right would dwindle and support for his centrist alliance would surge at the national ballot box, also looks to have been misplaced. Already the biggest opposition party in parliament and on the back of its best-ever electoral performance, Le Pen’s RN is currently leading the French polls with around 35-38% of the vote, followed by the newly assembled NFP leftist coalition at 28-31%. Macron’s centrist Ensemble alliance trails behind both in third place at 20-22% and falling.

As a final coup de grâce, Macron may now face a possible two-way squeeze from the center in the final stretch of the campaign. Moderate leftists who had remained with Macron may vote for the NFP if they think it has a better chance than the president’s camp of blocking a far-right government. Moderate right voters who’d normally shy away from Le Pen, meanwhile, may vote for the RN if they think it has a better chance than the president’s camp of blocking an even more frightful radical left government. The pro-European, reformist center Macron set out to build in 2017 risks being reduced to a puny 100 or fewer deputies from its current 250.

What happens next?

While converting predicted vote shares into National Assembly seats is tricky due to France’s complicated two-round system, most polls point to an irredeemably blocked National Assembly, with the far right winning the largest number of seats (likely up to 260) but probably falling short of an outright majority (289 of 577). This matters because Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s protegee and RN’s candidate for prime minister, has said that he will refuse to form a government unless he has a clear majority to shelter him from instant ejection from office by censure motions.

Which in turn means that the most likely outcome to emerge from the rubble on July 7 is a hung parliament where there’s no majority in the National Assembly to sustain any government, setting up an unprecedented impasse in modern French politics.

The lame duck Macron, who will remain president until 2027 short of a surprise resignation (a possible, if unlikely, way to break the deadlock by triggering fresh legislative elections), would then have two options.

The first would be to appoint a “caretaker” government of national unity with a prime minister from outside politics, ideally someone who might attract widespread support from the moderate left, moderate right, and what remains of Macronism (aka a unicorn). More realistically, whoever Macron appointed would face and lose immediate censure motions from opposition deputies in the Assembly, but they could still carry on in a caretaker role for up to a year as there’d be no alternative governments possible and Macron is constitutionally barred from calling new elections until June 2025.

The second option would be for Macron to extend Prime Minister Attal’s outgoing Macronist government for another year, turning it into a caretaker administration. The government would lose censure motions but remain in place with reduced powers until new legislative elections were held.

A caretaker government would be unable to propose legislation or govern by decree, facing sure political and constitutional challenges if it tried to do anything other than manage events in ways that everyone generally agreed on. The only areas where it might have some latitude are defense and fiscal policy. A caretaker government would lack popular legitimacy, encounter significant opposition in an already ungovernable Assembly, and be exploited by the political extremes to stir unrest.

As things stand, then, France faces the prospect of a lengthy period of political paralysis that will prevent the country from meeting its promises to cut its fiscal deficit, constructively engaging in the EU, and supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

And that’s the good scenario (!).

What if Le Pen wins a majority?

According to current polling, the second most likely outcome on July 7 after a deadlocked parliament is a narrow National Rally majority that sets up an unprecedently adversarial “cohabitation” between President Macron and a government led by Le Pen’s prime minister-designate Bardella.

Once again, this would be uncharted territory for France. While there have been three previous cohabitations between presidents and governments of different political stripes in the past, none have been between politicians so ideologically opposed as Macron and Le Pen/Bardella.

These two camps have irreconcilable differences that the French system is simply not designed to deal with. To name a few: Macron is the biggest champion of more common borrowing for EU security and defense, while Le Pen favors not only withholding part of France’s financial contribution to the EU but moving toward fewer common policies. Macron is a staunch supporter of everything Ukraine, while Le Pen (whose party once took a loan from a Kremlin-linked bank) has excused Russia’s invasion, criticized French aid to Kyiv, and opposes Ukrainian membership of either NATO or the EU. Macron is committed to getting France’s budget deficit on track, while Le Pen ran on a fiscal policy that would overrun EU fiscal rules. Macron adheres to the fundamental principles of EU governance, while Le Pen wants to toughen migration policy in ways that would infringe the European Convention on Human Rights and would subsidize French business and agriculture in ways that would violate the EU’s single market rules.

Under the Fifth Republic Constitution, the president has a right to shape foreign, European, and defense policy, while a prime minister with a parliamentary majority can impose their will on purely domestic policy. But although the president has no veto power over legislation, an adversarial prime minister can undermine the president’s agenda because any European initiative of magnitude requires parliamentary ratification back home. Moreover, while only the president sits in the European Council, it’s the government’s ministers who represent the country in all the European Council formations, allowing them to block the president’s EU political and legislative agenda.

As a result, in a matter of weeks, France could find itself led by a populist Euroskeptic government bent on actively undermining French support for the EU and Ukraine at a time when it is most needed, with a powerless Macron unable to do much about it. It would be ironic if the man most devoted to building a strong France, Europe, and Ukraine ended up being responsible for weakening all three.


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