Macron’s Early Election Call After EU Vote Is a Huge Gamble

On the face of it, there is little logic in calling an election from a position of great weakness. But that is what President Emmanuel Macron has done by calling a snap parliamentary election in France on the back of a humiliation by the far right.

After the National Rally of Marine Le Pen and her popular protégé Jordan Bardella handed him a crushing defeat on Sunday in elections for the European Parliament, Mr. Macron might have done nothing. He might also have reshuffled his government, or simply altered course through stricter controls on immigration and by renouncing contested plans to tighten rules on unemployment benefits.

Instead, Mr. Macron, who became president at 39 in 2017 by being a risk taker, chose to gamble that France, having voted one way on Sunday, will vote another in a few weeks.

“I am astonished, like almost everyone else,” said Alain Duhamel, the prominent author of “Emmanuel the Bold,” a book about Mr. Macron. “It’s not madness, it’s not despair, but it is a huge risk from an impetuous man who prefers taking the initiative to being subjected to events.”

Shock coursed through France on Monday. The stock market plunged. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, a city that will host the Olympic Games in just over six weeks, said she was “stunned” by an “unsettling” decision. “A thunderbolt,” thundered Le Parisien, a daily newspaper, across its front page.

For Le Monde, it was “a jump in the void.” Raphaël Glucksmann, who guided the revived center-left socialists to third place among French parties in the European vote, accused Mr. Macron of “a dangerous game.”

France is always a mystery, its perennial discontent and restiveness at odds with its prosperity and beauty, but this was a surprise of unusual proportions. Mr. Macron, after a stinging defeat in which the National Rally won 31.37 percent of the vote to 14.6 percent for the coalition led by his Renaissance party, has in effect called his country’s bluff, asking if its apparent readiness for the extreme right in power is real or a mere letting-off of steam.

The risk is that about a month from now Mr. Macron would have to govern with Mr. Bardella, 28, who represents everything he abhors, as his prime minister. If the nationalist, anti-immigrant National Rally wins an absolute majority in the 577-member National Assembly, an unlikely scenario, or merely emerges as by far the strongest party, which is more plausible, Mr. Macron may be obliged to swallow hard and do that.

Ms. Le Pen, with her eye on winning the presidency in 2027, would almost certainly defer to Mr. Bardella, who led the party’s European election campaign, for the post of prime minister.

France would then be confronted with the consecration through high political office of the extreme right, an idea held unthinkable ever since the Vichy government ruled France in collaboration with the Nazis between 1940 and 1944.

Why play with fire in this way? “It’s not the same election, not the same form of ballot, and not the same stakes,” said Jean-Philippe Derosier, a professor of public law at the University of Lille. “Macron apparently feels it’s the least bad choice to have a possible National Rally prime minister under his control, rather than a Le Pen victory in 2027.”

In other words, Mr. Macron, who is term limited and will leave office in 2027, may be flirting with the notion that three years in office for the National Rally — turning it from a party of protest to a party with the onerous responsibilities of government — would stall its inexorable rise.

It is one thing to rail from the margins, quite another to run a heavily indebted and polarized country so angry over the level of immigration, crime and living costs that many French people seem driven by a sentiment that “enough is enough.”

As in other Western societies, including the United States, a widespread feeling of alienation, even invisibility, among people outside the wired cities of the knowledge economy has led to a broad feeling that the prevailing system needs blowing up.

Ms. Le Pen on Sunday announced the end of “the painful globalist parenthesis that has made so many people suffer in the world.” Given that mainstream pro-European parties won about 60 percent of the vote in the European Parliament election, despite the far-right surge, that appeared to be a bold prediction.

A “cohabitation,” as the French call it, between a president from one party and a prime minister from another, is not unknown — most recently, Jacques Chirac, a center-right Gaullist, governed with a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, between 1997 and 2002. France survived and Mr. Chirac was re-elected.

But never before has there been such an ideological gulf, going to the very conception of French values and the core importance of the European Union for the continent’s liberty, as there would be between Mr. Macron and a National Rally prime minister.

For Mr. Macron, a Europe already severely tested by the war in Ukraine will only count in the 21st century if it unites and pools its military and industrial resources. He considers this struggle existential for the continent, at a time when the Russian threat has grown.

For the National Rally, it is time for nations to reassert themselves against European federalism and against globalization. It wants to control frontiers strictly, resist the “punitive” ecological measures emanating from Brussels that it says drive up prices, and prevent what it sees as the dilution, or even disappearance, of nationhood through immigration.

Mr. Macron, in calling the election, made clear his view that France stands at a historic crossroads.

“To be French is to rise to the challenge of the epoch when necessary,” he said. “It is to know what a vote is worth and how liberty feels. To act, whatever the circumstances, with responsibility is fundamentally to write history rather than be its victim. That moment is now.”

These were ringing words with a distinct echo of Charles de Gaulle, who dissolved Parliament in 1968 after the civil unrest that coursed through the country in May of that year. De Gaulle emerged strengthened as the French people chose order.

But after seven years in power, during which he has practiced a highly centralized and hierarchical form of government, Mr. Macron, who is often criticized as aloof and who has shunned coalition-seeking in Parliament, looks isolated.

Both the center-right Republicans and the center-left Socialists have shown no inclination for now to join with Mr. Macron’s centrist Renaissance, even if such a coalition were to be the only way to keep the far right from power.

The Socialists are instead part of efforts to revive an alliance stretching to the extreme left for the election. Of course, in the breach, they may change their minds but Mr. Macron cannot count on this.

“France is a country of the discontented, but Mr. Macron has provoked an acute form of personal resentment,” Mr. Duhamel said. “He has given many French people the feeling of being inferior, and they detest that.”

Such is the animus that Mr. Macron may have encountered, he might well have been forced to dissolve a Parliament where he does not have an absolute majority in the fall anyway.

Standard & Poor’s, the American rating agency, downgraded France’s debt rating last month and the government is looking for more than $20 billion in budget cuts. Having raised the age of retirement to 64 from 62 last year over fierce protests, Mr. Macron now wants to rein in unemployment benefits. All of this would have provoked fierce resistance in Parliament.

Instead, after a debacle that was more than a defeat, Mr. Macron has seized the reins, forced all parties into a scramble to prepare for the two-round election on June 30 and July 7, dictated the agenda, disoriented everyone and made perhaps the biggest gamble of his political career.

He believes that a certain France is still unprepared to risk handing power to Ms. Le Pen. It was the French author Jean Cocteau who wrote: “Since these mysteries overtake us, let’s pretend to be their organizer.”

Politics and Government,Elections,Immigration and Emigration,Right-Wing Extremism and Alt-Right,Legislatures and Parliaments,France,Bardella, Jordan (1995- ),Hidalgo, Anne (1959- ),Le Pen, Marine,Macron, Emmanuel (1977- ),European Union,European Parliament,National Rally (France), #Macrons #Early #Election #Call #Vote #Huge #Gamble

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