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French President Emmanuel Macron Alamy Stock Photo

'This is a disaster for Macron': Will the French president's gamble on elections pay off?

Macron’s hopes of a centrist majority have been dealt a major blow by the formation of an alliance of parties on the left.

TECTONIC SHIFTS HAVE been taking place in French politics since President Emmanuel Macron surprised many by announcing snap parliamentary elections following his party’s resounding defeat to the far-right National Rally in the EU elections. 

Macron announced the dissolution of the National Assembly on 9 June saying it was a “serious and weighty” decision but also an act of “confidence” in the French public. 

“France needs a clear majority in serenity and harmony,” Macron said in a televised address. 

The first of two rounds of voting will take place on 30 June and current polling suggests another victory for the National Rally (RN). 

RN are top of the polls on 32%, with the New Popular Front left alliance behind them on 28%. Macron’s Renaissance party is way back on 18% while the Republicans trail the pack on just 8%.

Macron has declared his opposition to the “extremes” in French politics, meaning the far right and the socialist left, comments echoed by the captain of the French football team Kylian Mbappé.

Left alliance 

But the President’s hopes of forming a centrist majority have been dealt a major blow by the formation of an alliance of parties on the left, including the establishment centre-left Socialist party, called the New Popular Front. 

This has denied the President the chance of recruiting MPs from the centre left to his cause. 

“The New Popular Front is a disaster for Macron in the sense that his gamble was based on the notion that the left would be divided,” says University of Maynooth professor Dónal Hassett, who like many other commentators is convinced Macron did not see the left alliance coming. 

“The fact that they’re standing together is one of several spanners in the works of his plan that originally motivated him to dissolve the National Assembly.”

The New Popular Front’s platform features policy positions like reversing Macron’s raising of the retirement age, tying wages to inflation and taxing the wealthy, all of which is line with the positions of the France Unbowed party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. 

The Socialists’ influence can be seen in the area of foreign policy, with things like a commitment to continue supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

jean-luc-melenchon-during-an-interview-at-dimanche-en-politique-at-france-3-french-tv-channel-in-paris-on-june-16-2024-photo-by-eliot-blondetabacapress-com-credit-abaca-pressalamy France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Hassett believes this programme is “aspirational” and will likely be up for renegotiation if the left comes into power.

Macron now has to turn to the conservative Republicans if he hopes to form a majority in the National Assembly once the votes are in. His Renaissance party is not running candidates against Republican MPs seeking re-election. 

But the Republicans have been dealing with their own problems following the EU elections. Their leader made public overtures to the RN calling for an alliance, apparently without telling his party colleagues, the majority of whom oppose the idea. He has since been ditched as leader.

National Rally’s young new leader

At the forefront of the far-right in France is RN leader Jordan Bardella. The 28-year-old took over the presidency of the party from longtime leader Marine Le Pen in 2022. 

There is a good chance he could be the country’s next prime minister.

“He has risen as a star under the wing of Marine Le Pen,” Hassett explains.

As well as being strikingly young to be a contender for the premiership, Bardella has made a good impression on many French voters with his clean cut presentation and polished debating style. 

french-far-right-national-rally-party-president-jordan-bardella-stands-next-to-party-leader-marine-le-pen-after-the-new-years-speech-to-the-media-in-paris-monday-jan-15-2024-ap-photomichel-eul Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“In France they always say he looks like the ideal son-in-law,” says Hassett, which he says is funny because up until recently he was dating Le Pen’s niece, something that prompted accusations of nepotism. 

“He gives a kind of reassuring presentation to a certain kind of voter in France,” says Hassett, who notes that Bardella does have some points of difference with his mentor.

In contrast to Le Pen, who styles herself as a champion of the poor, “he is much more orientated towards classic rightwing economic policy.”

This is reflected in his revising some promises in the RN programme regarding pensions and the age of retirement. Bardella has also been adjusting foreign policy pledges. For example, reversing course on withdrawing from NATO and scrapping a plan for an “alliance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Le Pen, whose political career has been largely spent trying to clean up the image of the party founded by her father, has also been rowing back on previous commitments, such as the plan to evict non-Europeans – roughly one million people – from social housing.

eric-ciotti-left-president-of-the-conservative-party-les-republicains-listens-to-far-right-national-rally-party-leader-jordan-bardella-answering-economics-questions-of-the-french-business-organizat Former president of the Republicans Eric Ciotti (left) and RN leader Jordan Bardella answering questions from the French business leaders. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Le Pen is sitting out this parliamentary election in order to remain in position to run for the presidency in 2027.

“They kind of cleaned up their website,” says Hassett. “Now that the campaign has started, some of their policies have been proven to be nonsensical, or criticised, particularly by business leaders who they are trying to court.”

Ultimately though, Hassett is of the opinion that most Nationally Rally voters are not so much interested in specific policy positions but in what the party represents.

“And what they represent is, yes, a crackdown on immigration, but also a perception that they are outside the political class that has run the country for a long time, and that they’re more in touch with and sympathetic to the average French person who’s struggling.”

Macron, by contrast, is seen as arrogant and elitist by much of the French public. 

The President vs the Prime Minister

The prospect of Bardella becoming prime minister means France could have two opposing leaders. 

Macron’s position as president is not at stake in the upcoming election, but he will have to select a prime minister who has majority support in the National Assembly, which is likely to be Bardella. 

french-president-emmanuel-macron-arrives-in-a-cafe-after-a-military-ceremony-tuesday-june-18-2024-on-the-ile-de-sein-brittany-the-early-legislative-vote-june-30-and-july-7-was-triggered-by-emmanu Macron arrives at a café to meet members of the public after a military ceremony on Tuesday. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The prime minister has power over virtually all policy areas except for some foreign affairs remits that lie with the president. 

While it would not be the first time the country has had leaders from opposing parties in the two top offices, it would undoubtedly be more hostile between Macron and Bardella than previous arrangements between the Socialists and Republicans, which Hassett describes as “polite”. 

Constitutional issues would also likely arise from such a pairing. 

“It’s not really 100% clear what kind of role the president would have,” Hassett says. 

In prior cases of opposing leaders in the two roles, known as cohabitation, a concept of “reserved domain” has held, which leaves foreign policy largely to the president.

“But that’s not actually specified in the constitution, and in those [previous] cases the president tends to have a similar foreign policy to the prime minister.”

This would probably result in a “constitutional fight” between Bardella and Macron, says Hassett. 

At the end of the day though, as prime minister Bardella would be able to implement much of his agenda, which includes things like suspending benefits to parents of children who commit a crime, abolishing medical care for asylum seekers and abolishing citizenship based on being born in France.

Bardella would also be guaranteed at least a year in the office as calling a new election is prohibited within that time period. 

As Hassett explains, “He would also be able to say, if that agenda failed, that Macron had blocked it. Macron on the other hand, would hope that if that situation emerges, he would be able to present himself as the protector of the Republic.”

The first round of voting takes place on 30 June with a second round on 7 July.

Whatever the result, France looks set to see major changes in the balance of political power.  

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