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Macron Looks to Snatch Victory from Jaws of Defeat in French Elections

Posted on Thursday, June 27, 2024
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by Walter Samuel
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Emmanuel Macron, or “Jupiter,” as he prefers to be known, has a dismal record in many fields. Economically, France is stagnant, with its credit rating recently downgraded. Internationally, its position has collapsed, with French forces driven out of Africa and Macron left issuing empty threats of repeating Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Yet if there is one place Macron has excelled, it is in the political realm. Those preparing to write-off Macron and to welcome an inevitable victory for Marine Le Pen’s conservative National Rally do so at their peril. Far from an act of madness, Macron’s decision to call early parliamentary elections is an act of cynicism that has left his allies and enemies speculating as to his motives. Does he wish to win? To lose? The answer to all such inquiries is, “Yes.” Macron has created a situation in which he, at least, can profit from any outcome. It is less clear the same is true of France.

On June 30th, France will hold the first round of early elections for their National Assembly. Voters are probably as confused as to why they are heading to the polls as the politicians who have been forced to cancel planned summer get-aways in order to canvass for their votes. The current Assembly was elected in 2022 and was scheduled to last until June of 2027, two months after the next French presidential election that April. Under the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic, however, the president retains the right to dissolve the National Assembly without its consent and call for early elections once per year. 

No one is exactly sure why Macron exercised this right following the June 7th European elections where his aligned parties won a measly 15 percent of the vote while Marine Le Pen’s National Rally won 31 percent of the vote. The current Assembly is manageable. While Macron’s centrist Renaissance Coalition lacks a majority, holding 250 of 577 seats in the National Assembly, he has had few difficulties imposing his choice of prime ministers or passing legislation beyond the normal chaos common to the fragmented French political system. Following in the footsteps of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron has used fear of Le Pen to blackmail the left into backing his governments while allowing him to gesture rightward on immigration and transgender issues.

This has prompted speculation of a more devious motive. A popular theory is that Macron is not even trying to win the elections, but rather seeking to lose them in a scheme that combines Cardinal Richelieu with Max Bialystock. Under this theory, Macron believes that on the current trajectory Marine Le Pen will be elected president in April of 2027, either because none of his chosen successors will be able to defeat her or because they will be eliminated in the first round of the French election in favor of a left-wing candidate. At that point, a freshly-elected President Le Pen’s National Rally would be well-placed to win a majority in the legislative elections two months later, providing her with absolute power.

Allowing the National Rally to take office now, the theory goes, provides the party with a chance to discredit itself in office. The party could fail to win a majority and be forced into a coalition with either the traditional right or Macron’s supporters, limiting its ability to pursue bold policy but saddling it with the day-to-day tasks of government. Macron could use his power to name a prime ministerial candidate to try to split the National Rally between Le Pen and the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, the party’s parliamentary leader.

In short, Macron would have numerous opportunities to undermine Marine Le Pen and her party in office that he lacks with them currently in opposition. These concerns would be all the more pressing if Macron suspects that France is on the verge of a major financial crisis, as many of his words and actions indicate. France’s credit rating was recently downgraded, and suggestions that Macron is setting the National Rally up as a scapegoat have been reinforced by his claims that Le Pen would be a French Liz Truss.

Macron did not reserve his warnings about economic and political chaos for a government of the National Rally. He also aimed them at the left, now forming a “New Popular Front,” or NPF. Macron has been in effect declaring that electing anyone else would prompt a market collapse – a safe position to hold if he expects both a market collapse and to lose.

Moreover, every single tactic outlined above that Macron can utilize against the National Rally can also be used against the left-wing NFP in the event they win a plurality, arguably with a greater degree of success given the left’s divisions between a moderate faction, centered around the old Socialist party which supports Ukraine and Israel, and a hardline faction centered around Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, or LFI) opposes France’s membership in NATO, has been accused of antisemitism, and supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It is only Melenchon’s views that are an obstacle to left-wing unity. He has obstructed the process of selecting a common candidate list by insisting on the inclusion of a close associate who admitted to domestic assault, and to the exclusion of elected legislators from his own party who criticized that decision from any common front. As Melenchon’s party won 71 of the left’s 131 seats in 2022, his stand represents a dilemma. It is impossible to build a viable left-wing coalition without him, but any alliance in which he plays a leading role would be toxic with the wider electorate. Especially given the unique, two-round nature of the French electoral system.

French legislative elections are held in two rounds. In the first, all candidates run together. If a candidate wins an absolute majority of the votes cast, along with the support of at least 25 percent of eligible voters, they win outright. Otherwise, a second round is held in which all candidates receiving the support of at least 12.5 percent of eligible voters take part. In this round, a plurality is sufficient for election.

This complex electoral system favors broad alliances, and Macron may have (and may still) hope that a fragmented left would result in multiple contests where no left-wing candidates would reach the second round by achieving the support of 12.5 percent of eligible voters, thereby setting up direct contests between his own supporters and Le Pen’s.

With a divided left and a Gaulist Right, whose remnants were already facing annihilation after winning a mere seven percent in the European elections before they split into a pro-Le Pen faction under the party president Eric Ciotti and an anti-Le Pen faction running separate lists, Macron has a chance of securing runoff spots for his candidates.

It may well be that this plan fails. Macron, despite his ingenuity is up against the entropy of his own unpopularity, with polls showing his party’s support stuck at 20% versus 29% for the Left and 33-35% for Le Pen. But it is still a strategy. Most importantly, it is merely Plan A.

Macron’s odds of success with this strategy are only dicey when looked upon from the perspective of who will be the next Prime Minister of France in 2024. When it comes to who will be the next President of France, a question that is of much greater concern to Macron and the French mainstream, the current approach seems almost certain to reduce Le Pen’s chances.

The French electoral system for presidential elections also functions in two rounds. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, a run-off is held between the top two finishers. Polls currently show Le Pen holding a narrow lead of 2-4 percent over current Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, the likely candidate of Macron’s coalition, but of up to 30 percent against Jean-Marie Melanchon, the leading left-wing figure.

Le Pen can only win in one of two ways. First, if Macron’s government is so unpopular that his chosen successor cannot defeat Le Pen in the runoff. Second, if somehow Le Pen ends up in the runoff against a far-left figure like Melanchon who would lose centrist votes.

This election seems certain to eliminate Melenchon from the political stage, thereby removing the risk he would make a second round as he nearly did in 2022. Second, by removing the stigma of incumbency, it allows Macron’s chosen successor to more easily run as a unity candidate against Le Pen.

Macron’s strategy also appeals both to his sense of history and that of the French nation.

If you ask Americans for a list of their greatest presidents, what will emerge are the names of men who left behind a national legacy. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan were all builders.

If you ask the French for their greatest leaders, the answer will be different. The stars of Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and even Charles de Gaulle burned brightly, for a time making France La Grande Nation, but they bequeathed not a legacy, but a legend. To their successors they left bankruptcy, division, and a legend of greatness that men burdened with the task of paying the debts incurred by glory could not live up to.

That is the greatness upon which Macron was raised, it has been how he has approached his life in politics, and it would be a surprise if he ended it in any other way. If Macron is to end on Elba, he will ensure there is a spectacular Hundred Days first. The question is whether this will be his, or Marine Le Pen’s Waterloo.

Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.

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Donita Fogle
Donita Fogle
12 days ago

Today’s news, July 1, 2024, indicates the political picture in France is leading to a coalition to hold back the far right.Macron seems to be connecting.
I don’t know anything about French politics but would like to hear some perspective by those who have some understanding of how government works in France.Has the European economy and their social systems been affected by immigration?Since the English left the EU?
Macron and his wife seem to be nice people from news I’ve seen and read. I don’t know about LePen.

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