Macron gambles on France: ‘People don’t understand why he did this’

French parliamentary elections shaping up to be choice between far-right National Rally and left-wing Popular Front

Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party: There is a strong anti-elite sentiment behind the RN’s rise. Photograph: Denis Charlet

More than two decades ago, Loic Laveissiere remembers protesting against Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front as a 17 year old, back when it was widely ostracised as an extreme right-wing party on the fringes.

Now under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, the rebranded National Rally (RN) has become the most popular party in France and next month could take over the office of the prime minister.

The current political crisis is seen as one of French president Emmanuel Macron’s own making, after he dissolved the National Assembly and called snap parliamentary elections. The decision was a response to the results of the European elections earlier this month, where the far right won 31 per cent of the vote and twice as many seats as Macron’s centrists.

Laveissiere, who is now 39 and works in northern Paris, says he is disgusted that RN is on the verge of power: “There is a very strange atmosphere in France today.” The first of two rounds of voting in the elections take place on Sunday, June 30th, where candidates need to secure 12.5 per cent of the vote in constituencies to proceed to a run-off in the second round.


Polls show the anti-immigration, Eurosceptic RN remains the most popular party heading into the elections. Its main challenger is the Popular Front, a broad coalition of left-wing parties, including Raphael Glucksmann’s centre-left party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s more radical France Unbowed, who quickly banded together to try to keep Le Pen’s party from power. The shaping of the race as a decision between the left or the far right has left little space for Macron’s centrist party, who themselves were taken by surprise by his decision to go to the country.

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“People don’t understand why Macron did this,” says Yves Bertoncini, a former director of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank, who also worked as a French official for years. The gamble was that by springing an election voters would return to the centre, despite his presidential coalition languishing in the polls for months. “It won’t work at all. How can you expect a reversal in people’s minds in one month?” Bertoncini asks.

RN is on track to win north of 200 seats, but to perhaps fall short of the 289 needed to control parliament outright. Macron’s coalition, which is in power but without a full majority, could be wiped out.

Voters are most concerned about the cost of living and immigration, but there is also a strong anti-elite sentiment behind the RN’s rise. “Macon is so symbolic of this type of elite, with no empathy, no connection to the people,” Bertoncini says.

“It is a difficult moment for the French people. We have two choices, between the extremes,” says Jerome Guitton, a 62-year-old Parisian out running errands earlier this week. The outcome of the election could be a hung parliament where “nobody can do anything”, which he says would be a problem. “I’m okay with Macron. People are expecting too much from the government and in my opinion they must think what they can do, not what the state can do for them,” he says.

Shahin Vallee, an economist who worked as an adviser to Macron when he was economy minister, says back then the president was much better at taking advice from others. A snap election would probably have been necessary at some point this year, due to likely difficulties passing a budget, he says. But the timing had left no opportunity to mount a proper campaign or present a new vision. “The elections are paving the ground for Le Pen,” he says.

The shaping of the race as a decision between the left or the far right has left little space for Macron’s centrist party

Sitting in a cafe in the affluent and right-leaning 16th arrondissement in Paris, a man is watching a video of Jordan Bardella on his phone. Bardella, the 28-year-old president of RN, has amassed a following of 1.7 million on TikTok, where he mixes the party’s talking points with videos of him taking selfies beside supporters.

A rising star who came up through the RN’s youth wing, Bardella will become prime minister if the far right win a majority, while Le Pen steers things in the background. Bardella is in some respects the culmination of a years-long campaign by Le Pen to bring her party into the mainstream. The young man from a rough north Paris suburb is the new face of the far right, without the baggage of the Le Pen name that may still put off some voters.

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Jean-Yves Camus, a leading analyst of far-right politics in France, says it remains to be seen how RN would act if they got the keys to the Matignon, the prime minister’s residence.

Members of the French football team, many of whom come from immigrant backgrounds, have spoken out about the country's upcoming election. Video: David Dunne

Macron is in the Élysée Palace until the next presidential elections in 2027, meaning if RN secure a parliamentary majority or lead a minority government, French politics will be dominated by a tug of war between the two institutions. Macron would retain responsibility for foreign affairs, but a RN government could logjam his policy elsewhere, or kick off a fight with the European Union over budget contributions.

“The extent to which the National Rally can impact the French political scene depends on whether they get a relative or absolute majority,” Camus says. There is a strong possibility that Le Pen in power would further moderate her party, to avoid spooking voters ahead of her expected fourth bid for presidency, which Macron cannot contest after his two consecutive terms. RN could shy away from trying to force through its more “extreme” policies, Camus says, and instead focus on culture-war politics, law and order, and tackling Islamist radicals.

“The extreme right has not been part of any government in France since 1945, so many people within this stream of political life see themselves as pariahs, excluded people. I think that quite a few of them want to take vengeance, not by attacking people, but by enacting legislation that goes against the very core of our values and our constitution,” Camus says.

Far-right leader Bardella says he needs absolute majority to govern France effectivelyOpens in new window ]

There is a theory that Macron views his gamble as an each-way bet. If he secures a new majority he arrests the momentum of the far right. If the RN wins, it will have to take on the responsibility of government, and possibly crash and burn before the presidential elections in three years. This reading of Macron’s move was probably “partly true”, Bertoncini says.

The strategy is a risky one. If RN manages to win a slim majority, it would likely blame any failure to introduce their agenda on having to share the balance of power with Macron. “Marine Le Pen will be able to say: ‘We did our best, but we were blocked by the president’,” he says.

Already the RN has started to walk back or shed some previous promises, says Vallee. “It looks like they are starting to see that governing is not as easy. They see the trap that Macron has set, to let them run and fail,” he says.

When it came to the RN, Baudouin de La Touanne, a 21-year-old law student in Paris, says they are overly focused on immigration. “I think they orient their politics around one subject, migration, which can be considered to be a problem, but you cannot base your whole politics on one topic,” he says.

Due to Macron’s unpopularity with the public, his Renaissance party and its coalition allies have sought to downplay the president in the campaign. Hopes are being put on the shoulders of Gabriel Attal, the 35 year old who Macron appointed prime minister at the start of this year, to lead an unlikely revival of fortunes.

Like many others, Livia Cohen Tannoudji (30), who works in publishing, is angry at Macron for calling the election in the first place. As a member of the Jewish community, she says she is concerned with anti-Semitism coming from the far right and some elements of the far left. “It feels like we are stuck in a place where there is danger everywhere,” she says. She planned to vote for Macron’s coalition through gritted teeth, as the least worst option. “I really think about maybe leaving my country… I feel very French but if France doesn’t protect me I don’t think I can stay here.”

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