Humiliated Macron can only hope an election will see off Le Pen

The EU not really working out for you as planned, is it President Macron? (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)


French President Emmanuel Macron’s surprising decision to dissolve the legislature and call a snap summer election is a massive gamble. Lose this, and Macron may put the European Union’s future at risk as well as France’s.

Macron’s decision comes after a drubbing by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in today’s European Union elections. Projections show it winning 30 of France’s 81 seats, while Eric Zemmour’s Reconquete party garners another five. Macron’s Renew Europe coalition is projected to win only 14 seats, a massive blow to the beleaguered president.

It is easy to see why Macron wants to move up the country’s date of reckoning. Le Pen and her party have been going up in opinion polls for the last eighteen months. Recent polls for the French legislature show RN winning between 31-33 per cent of the vote, a record high for the party.

Clearly, Macron wants to see if he can cut that rise off before it becomes unbeatable.

His opportunity – and his challenge – stems from France’s electoral system which is unique in Europe. Charles de Gaulle, the guiding force behind the Fifth Republic’s Constitution, wanted above all else to avoid the endless manoeuvring and weak governments the Fourth Republic had produced. That is why the constitution provides for a directly elected president who has the strongest powers of any executive in Europe.

The French legislative election system also mimics this approach. Legislators run in districts, each of which elect a single member. Unlike in Hungary, where members are elected if they get the most votes even if it is well short of a majority, France requires a second round of voting if no candidate gets an absolute majority. The top two candidates, and in some rare cases the top three, then face off a week later.

This is both Macron’s hope and his potential curse. RN’s dramatic rise in the polls means that it will have many more candidates in that second round than in the last election two years ago. This means most French will face a clear choice: a candidate supporting Le Pen or one opposing her.

This choice had worked well for the French establishment for decades. The centre-Left and centre-Right parties would endorse the other’s candidate in such showdowns, with far left leaders calling for abstention or an anti-Le Pen vote if their candidate had not made it through.

This meant that the RN and its predecessor, the National Front, usually had many fewer seats in the Assembly than its share of first round votes would suggest.

That cordon sanitaire broke down in 2022. The party leaders all played their traditional roles, endorsing whichever party’s candidate was facing someone from RN or calling for abstention.

But their voters no longer unanimously fell into line. RN beat a Macroniste candidate in 54 of the 109 second round contests where they faced one another.

The party also beat the Left-wing alliance NUPES’ candidate in many seats where they faced one another.

In all, RN won a record high 89 seats in the 577-seat chamber, thereby making Macron the first president in the Fifth Republic not to enter office with a legislative majority.

Le Pen’s party did that in a year when it won less than 19 percent in the first round. It will clearly win more if it does get the third of the first-round votes suggested by polls. The question, however, is whether it can get a majority. That depends a lot on what the French decide is the lesser of two evils in round two.

A lot also depends on what the country’s fractured Left does. Most of the major parties on the Left combined into an alliance, NUPES, for the 2022 vote. That allowed many of their candidates to survive to the second round. If these parties decide to do that again, Macron’s weak centrist alliance could be the one that fails to make the second round. 

The president is clearly hoping to emulate Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez, who similarly called a snap vote last year after his party, the centre-Left Socialists, suffered devastating losses in local elections. Sanchez won an upset victory as enough centrist Spaniards decided they wouldn’t risk electing a centre-Right government in league with the populist Vox party. They reluctantly backed Sanchez. 

Macron, however, does not start in a strong position. His current job approval rating is a mere 35 percent, although it is trending up. Macron tried to stem the populist tide in the run up to today’s vote. That clearly failed, so it is hard to see how putting the legislature on the line will result in a different result.

The results will be felt across Europe if Macron’s gamble fails.

An RN majority would force Macron to govern with a Prime Minister from his mortal foe until the end of his term. Perhaps that would give him the foil he needs to revive centrism, or perhaps the RN would buckle under the pressure of having governing responsibility.

Failing that, however, the result will legitimize working with the hitherto unacceptable national right, thereby endangering every party that caters to the Brussels consensus.

It might be even worse if Macron had to cobble together a majority including the far Left. Communists and Jean Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise are hardly less opposed to Macron than Le Pen and the nationalist Right. They would surely extract a heavy price for their cooperation, one that would probably end any effort Macron wants to make to modernize the bloated French state.

It is not clear this cure is better than the disease it is meant to eradicate.

The European Union has long been founded on the tacit alliance between the two largest members, Germany and France. Macron’s gamble will put that arrangement under severe pressure. If it does not survive, the EU itself will be shaken to its core.