Will Emmanuel Macron’s Surprise Election Call Embolden France’s Far-Right?

French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to call snap parliamentary elections, in which the far-right National Rally party is predicted to win, could backfire.
French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to call snap parliamentary elections, in which the far-right National Rally party is predicted to win, could backfire. Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday called snap parliamentary elections following a disappointing result for his centrist pro-E.U. alliance in the European elections.

Many were surprised by the announcement, given that the elections were called three years early and immediately ahead of France hosting the Olympics in Paris later this summer. Macron, who takes pride in his image as a disruptor, reportedly did not even give Prime Minister Gabriel Attal advance notice of his plan.

The upcoming race is scheduled to take place incredibly fast. The first round of voting is set for June 30, followed by a second round on July 7.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right party National Rally, has managed to largely normalize the group’s image and expand its base as French voters appear disenfranchised with Macron, who, as of May 31, had an approval rating of just 34%, according to Politico Europe.

“To be French, at heart, is about choosing to write history, not being driven by it,” Macron said Sunday.

However, he has no allies left willing to work with him to avoid a potential National Rally win and prevent the appointment of a far-right prime minister in the country for the first time since the end of World War II.

Macron has said he has no plans to step down irrespective of the result, but concern remains about what sharing power with an extreme right-wing prime minister would mean for France. Some even warn that this vote could spell Macron’s Brexit moment.

“It could absolutely result in a major crisis for France’s institutions, its role in Europe,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the managing director of Eurasia Group’s analysis and advisory work on Europe.

This makes Macron’s gambit all the more risky given the backdrop of the November U.S. presidential election, in which former President Donald Trump is a major candidate.

France’s Brexit Moment

Le Pen welcomed Macron’s announcement, previewing what a parliament led by her party would prioritize.

“We’re ready to turn the country around, ready to defend the interests of the French, ready to put an end to mass immigration, ready to make the purchasing power of the French a priority,” she said.

A good result for the party would also embolden Le Pen ahead of a likely 2027 presidential bid. (Macron won’t be able to run due to term limits.)

“If she were to win the presidency in 2027 with her current policies, it really would be alarming: she is pro-Russia, against heavily arming Ukraine, and deeply skeptical of the EU even if she no longer says that she wants France to leave it,” the Economist writes.

Macron seemed to benefit from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, followed by Trump’s 2016 win. French voters in 2017 appeared spooked to insert even more uncertainty into the world by putting a far-right leader in power.

But many fear Macron’s decision to send the French to the polls now could become France’s Brexit moment. In 2016, then-U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum on the country’s E.U. membership, which he was confident he would win, to stare down the Brexiteers in the party. The result in favor of Brexit still haunts the country, as many Britons now admit they regret their vote.

Unlike Cameron, “Macron is not naive; he understands exactly what he has done,” Emile Chabal, professor of contemporary history at the University of Edinburgh, writes in Foreign Policy.

“He may, in time, be vindicated. But if he fails, he alone will bear the responsibility for tearing France apart,” Chabal added.

The Normalization Of The Far-Right

There’s reason to suggest Le Pen could be much better positioned to run a successful presidential campaign in three years, even as Macron claims he does not “intend to hand the keys of power to the extreme right in 2027.”

Tara Varma, a visiting fellow in the Center of the United States and Europe at Brookings, told HuffPost that many voters are no longer ashamed to proclaim their support for Le Pen, indicating that “this taboo has been broken.”

The National Rally, which has tried to “sanitize” its image and appear less extremist, has managed to significantly expand its vote base over the past few years. While the party has come first in the last three European elections, it’s the first time they’ve come this far ahead, getting more than double the vote share Macron’s party secured.

“The vote for the National Rally is not just a protest vote anymore,” Varma told HuffPost.

Le Pen has also sought to inject new blood into the party. The European election campaign was led by her protégé, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who could become the country’s next prime minister in the event of a National Rally win. (Current polls predict the National Rally will come first in legislative elections with a vote share of about 30% but won’t secure an absolute majority in parliament.)

Sébastien Maillard, a special advisor to the Jacques Delors Institute, said the National Rally has also tried to polish its image, deploying a so-called “tie strategy,” having its candidates dress the part and appear polite and soft-spoken to disguise their far-right ideas.

In another effort to become more mainstream, Le Pen has abandoned calls to exit the Eurozone and the European Union even though she continues to spew anti-E.U. propaganda.

Besides, following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel, which prompted the ongoing Gaza war, Le Pen was quick to express support for Israel, seizing the opportunity to diffuse concerns about the party’s anti-semitic past. (In 2015, Le Pen expelled her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party he founded, which was then called National Front after he repeated his position that the Holocaust was a “detail of history.”)

Macron Left With No Allies

Despite criticizing both the extreme left and the extreme right during a press conference Wednesday, Macron ultimately urged those who oppose the prospect of a far-right government to band together.

“I hope that when the time comes, men and women of goodwill who will have been able to say no to the extremes will come together … will put themselves in a position to build a shared, sincere project that is useful to the country,” he said.

But no one seems to share a desire to team up with Macron.

France’s four left-wing parties on Thursday announced the creation of an electoral alliance dubbed the Popular Front, pledging to govern jointly if they win the election, a move that the French president reportedly wasn’t expecting when he called the election.

Meanwhile, the mainstream right is in turmoil. Éric Ciotti, the president of France’s conservatives, which got just over 7% of the vote in the European elections, expressed his intention to form an alliance with the National Rally, effectively cutting the so-called “cordon sanitaire” that has up to now kept the conservatives distanced from the far-right. The party’s leaders voted to expel him as he pledged to take the fight to the courts.

These developments mean Macron, who has for years claimed he built a strong center against the National Rally, has no allies to turn to in this crucial moment, further complicating his party’s path in the upcoming race.

‘A Fundamentally Different Bet’

Maillard told HuffPost Macron pressed the “political nuclear button” in announcing the early vote, which could have far-reaching consequences, noting, however, that it would have been perhaps equally dangerous to do nothing in the face of a resounding defeat.

“By the next presidential election of 2027, he would have seen his political capital devaluated more and more,” Maillard explained. He added that Macron also wanted to get ahead of the National Assembly, potentially voting down his budget in the fall and bringing down his government.

Varma said, ultimately, the shock decision is consistent with Macron’s instinct for upending French politics. Macron has disrupted France’s political scene since he first came into power by winning the 2017 presidential election and also securing an absolute majority for his party in parliament that same year in a surprising result.

Varma added that while Macron has succeeded in some gambles he’s taken during his time in office, things are not looking up for him this time.

“In this case, he’s betting with the future of the French people, which is, I think, a fundamentally different bet,” Varma told HuffPost.

In calling the far-right’s bluff by triggering legislative elections, Macron is betting that if, as polls predict, the National Rally comes first and he is forced to nominate a far-right prime minister, that would expose them for what they are and make the outcome of a 2027 Le Pen presidency less likely.

But his gambit could backfire.

“There’s a chance that they may figure out a formula that enables them to govern and they further normalize and legitimize themselves and build and expand their voter base, in which case, Le Pen could do very well in 2027,” Rahman told HuffPost.

The timing of a potential rightward turn for France comes at a pivotal moment for Europe.

“What we’re going to see is a weakened Macron, which I don’t think is going to help either France or Europe, to be honest,” Varma said.

How A National Rally Win Would Affect The U.S.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s team anxiously watched the 2022 French presidential election, fearing that a Le Pen victory could destabilize Europe and disrupt the united front he built to support Ukraine against Russia.

“There’s a domino effect in the rest of Europe if France falls” to the far-right, Varma explains.

The White House is expected to watch the results of this parliamentary vote equally closely and evaluate what they mean for Europe and the U.S. as they prepare to take on Trump in November, the presumptive Republican nominee who has promised to take extreme measures, including cutting funding for allies abroad.

Biden could also draw lessons from how the French people respond to Macron’s message urging the public to stand for democracy, which mirrors the case he has made to Americans against supporting Trump.

While Macron would still remain in charge of foreign policy as president, a National Rally prime minister could appoint a foreign minister with a pro-Kremlin agenda.

“We could really see France’s foreign policy going a fundamentally different direction, of course, much less support for multilateralism, much less support for international organizations, a true willingness to undermine the E.U. from the inside,” Varma told HuffPost. “And I think all of this, of course, wouldn’t be in the U.S. interest.”