Subscriber OnlyOpinion

France is politically goosed if Macron’s big gamble on a snap election fails

Le Pen could repeat EU election performance in two weeks’ time, leaving French politics in gridlock. There could be consequences for Ireland

Following success for Marine Le Pen, French president Emmanuel Macron has decided to put a big decision to voters in France. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The election results in Ireland delivered their own type of shock in the form of the return of the old guard. Expectations create political momentum. The old centrist parties were expected to do poorly and Sinn Féin was expected to do well, but the opposite happened. Momentum shifts not on absolute numbers but relative numbers. Expectations, particularly in a European or local election, set the tone for the next battle.

All over the world, this gap between expectation and results creates political energy – and the energy can swing in either direction. In South Africa, for example, people expected the ANC to do poorly, but not as poorly as it did last weekend. Despite still being the biggest party with 40 per cent of the vote, the view is that the ANC is finished. In India, the ethnonationalist BJP thought they had it all sewn up, but the electorate demurred, creating a new dynamic where Narendra Modi is no longer seen as all-powerful.

We see a similar story in Europe. On paper the centrist parties won, but the anti-establishment insurrectionists did enough to change the political momentum. The impetus has swung. About 25 per cent of the 300 million or so Europeans who voted embraced an anti-establishment nationalist message.

In Germany, Italy and France, the European countries that set the tone for mainstream politics, nationalist, anti-immigrant parties made decent enough inroads. The AfD – seen until recently as a fringe element – garnered 15 per cent of the German vote. Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia claimed about 29 per cent of the vote, with Matteo Salvini’s right-wing Lega netting a further 9 per cent. As this column discussed two weeks ago, France delivered the most marked anti-establishment verdict, as Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National claimed more than 31 per cent of the vote, more than double that of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party.


Politics is a dynamic game. It is not enough to look at the static numbers and draw your conclusion; you have to look at the dynamic picture. It is not the actual outcome but the direction of travel that tells the story. Once momentum shifts, the game changes.

In this dynamic portrayal of politics, there are three ways to win elections. The first is to win seats. The second is to win the argument by pushing your enemies towards your agenda. The third, if you are an insurrectionist, is to prompt an immediate response from the establishment.

In that sense, Le Pen has achieved all three. In what will frame European politics for the next few years, Macron has put it up to the French people by calling a snap election. In a move straight out of the De Gaulle playbook, Macron is asking the population if this is really what they want. According to the constitution of the Fifth Republic, this is precisely what the omnipotent president should do. The president should decide what’s next and how to clear the impasse. But few presidents have the self-confidence to act so quickly and abruptly.

It is a huge gamble, but Macron has always liked to up the ante. In a “come on have a go if you think you are hard enough” move, Macron has “claimed” the Rassemblement National, setting the time and the place for the showdown. The snap election is set for June 30th. If Le Pen can repeat her EU election performance in two weeks’ time, France is politically goosed because the parliament, which looks after domestic affairs, will be in opposition to the president, who still controls foreign policy. Gridlock.

Populists have the environmental movement in their sightsOpens in new window ]

Macron is facing down the voters who might have used the European elections as a protest vote and is in effect saying, “Okay, enough of the childish stuff, let’s all be adults now.” His pitch is a cross-party coalition against the far right, a sort of grand coalition of centre right and left in the name of protecting the Fifth Republic.

The reaction has been catastrophic. In the past week, all sides except Le Pen have panicked. The moderate left – the late François Mitterrand’s socialists – has splintered, while many in the centre right, Les Républicans, the movement of Jacques Chirac, have opted for an alliance with the far right. Momentum has shifted to the populists. If Macron fails in creating this grand alliance – and at the moment it looks likely – the populist right will be emboldened all over the Continent. From there the play is obvious: in order to save their skins, the parties of the centre will adopt some of the nationalists’ position.

In Europe, the anti-establishment right will target climate change, which they see as the soft underbelly of the centre. Climate change has increasingly been seen as a cost by ordinary people, particularly in Germany, where the cost of retrofitting homes has fallen on people already dealing with spikes in prices across the board. The nationalists know this is an easy win. Climate change feels far away, while the cost of environmental virtue is shouldered today. In contrast to four years ago, conspicuous by her absence in this year’s European election campaign was Greta Thunberg, and young voters in Germany and France turned out in huge numbers for the populists.

A mistake of the centre is to assume that everyone under the age of 30 is a climate warrior; they are not. Again, dynamism and direction of travel are critical. It doesn’t matter where the electorate was four years ago, it’s about where it’s going in the years ahead that will determine tomorrow’s winners.

Janan Ganesh: Macron’s election call is an act of cool logicOpens in new window ]

Economically, the European right, in contrast to the American right, is a big-government movement. It wants higher taxes, more social protection, more government spending. Like American populism, it wants more protectionism from China in trade and tighter borders in terms of who can enter the country. Trump voters agitate for smaller government and lower taxes, while Meloni’s and Le Pen’s want more intervention, more protection and higher taxes on everyone except themselves.

If the world does shift to the right or if the centre, in an act of self-preservation, swipes some of the populists’ clothes, Ireland might find itself in a spot of bother. Protectionism would be a disaster for us. In the past 30 years, the Irish economy has, for the first time, overcome the tyranny of size. If you are a small country, your home market will never be large enough to make you rich. Countries our size need to trade with far larger neighbours, on a level playing field, in order to sell at scale. Globalisation delivered that. Never before in economic history has a country achieved peacefully what we achieved with free trade – access to other countries’ wallets. In the past, a country had to occupy another by force to extract its resources. For the past three decades, Ireland has done by trading what countries only previously achieved by war. Any moves back to protectionism and tariffs would be highly detrimental to us.

As we digest what has happened in Ireland, let’s not forget the political momentum in the world around us. Wayne Gretzky, the great Canadian ice hockey player, was asked to explain how he scored so many times. He explained, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.“ It’s all about momentum.

Today in Europe the political dynamism is with the populist right. If Macron’s big gamble on June 30th fails, that political energy will only become more forceful, with consequences for everyone.