Emmanuel Macron’s high-stakes gamble

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It is time to end the “fever”. That was how France’s president Emmanuel Macron explained his stunning decision on Sunday to dissolve the National Assembly and call snap legislative polls after the far right won a crushing victory in European parliamentary elections. His pro-EU centrist alliance limped in to a distant second place.

Before this weekend, France’s reckoning with the far right was scheduled for 2027 when Macron steps down. The campaign of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, to succeed him as president was looking increasingly unstoppable — but still years away. Now that reckoning, with grave implications for France’s democracy and the future of Europe, will come in less than a month.

Macron’s snap election is an extraordinarily risky gamble. His intention appears to be to shake French voters out of their feverish delusions about what the far right would be like in power. The choice between France’s mainstream parties and a nationalist, Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant group whose policies would plunge the country into conflict with the EU ought to be an obvious one. The French may indeed balk at installing an RN government. But too many are bitterly disillusioned with the other parties and contemptuous of Macron for comfort.

A second line of defence is to persuade the other parties to strike electoral pacts to maximise the chances of defeating RN candidates. But Macron has left precious little time for party leaders to thrash out a deal. The president has repeatedly invoked the need to uphold the cordon sanitaire against the far right at all costs, while sometimes neglecting it himself, as in the last parliamentary elections in 2022. He has also done much to demolish France’s traditional centrist parties, although they also have themselves to blame for their fading popularity. They are, understandably, deeply sceptical of his “après moi le déluge” approach.

An unspoken part of Macron’s gamble is the prophylactic effect: if it ends up administering a mild dose of RN in government now, perhaps without an absolute majority, the hope is that it may inoculate French voters against a much more serious dose later, in the shape of Le Pen in the presidency.

As president, Macron could use his position to call out the excesses of an RN-led government. But what if such a government, with Le Pen’s 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella as premier, was to moderate in government, as the hard-right Giorgia Meloni has done in Italy? Populist parties elsewhere have been tamed, to a degree, once faced with responsibilities of power (and Donald Trump showed even a chaotic spell for a populist in power does not prevent voters from wanting more). France’s electorate might then be prepared to entrust Le Pen with the presidency in 2027, without the checks on power that exist in Rome. This makes the risks of the far right in power higher in France than in other European countries.

Macron has few risk-free options at this stage. Waiting for the clock to tick down on his presidency, while his centrist government lacks a parliamentary majority, would turn him quickly into a lame duck. There is no succession plan. Whoever wants to replace him, from the political centre, will have to rebuild a winning electoral coalition. Nonetheless, precipitating a fresh vote is still a hazardous venture.

The cordon sanitaire is being stretched across Europe, as Sunday’s elections showed. Some nine EU governments have, or will soon have, the hard right inside or in support. France could be the tenth. With war raging in Europe, competitiveness declining and the urgent need to step up the green transition, the EU needs a France that is fully engaged. If Macron’s wager backfires, it may soon have the opposite.

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