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Tilting Right: France is on the brink of something terrifying

The most recent legislative elections demonstrated the strength of the French left when it unites. A strong showing by the left could alter the complexion of the campaign. At the very least, the far right can expect no simple procession to power.

Tilting Right: France is on the brink of something terrifying

Whatever happens next, it’ll go down as one of the wildest gambles in modern French history. President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly and hold snap legislative elections on June 30 and July 7 has given the far right its best shot at governing France for the first time since the Vichy regime of World War II.

The move stunned the country’s political class, including high-ranking Macronists from whom the president’s plans were reportedly heavily guarded. And for much of France, the decision remains perplexing. For those with the most to lose from the far right in power — above all, immigrants and the descendants of recent immigrants — the news is downright terrifying. Macron, who has a habit of disregarding conventional wisdom, will surely hope the move redounds to his benefit. But make no mistake: France is in danger.

In many respects, Macron’s domestic agenda was already in crisis. Since the 2022 legislative elections denied his electoral alliance a majority in the National Assembly, his coalition has been forced to seek support from other parties, namely the right-wing Republicans. At times, the government bypassed Parliament altogether. But for the bulk of its work, the administration was dependent on the Republicans’ backing.

The historic triumph of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in Sunday’s elections for the European Parliament — in which her party took 31 percent of the vote, more than double that of the president’s party — threatened this arrangement. Without a dissolution of the National Assembly, the National Rally would have continued to ramp up pressure on the Republicans, aiming to woo conservative voters and punish Republican leaders for their tacit support of the president. The prospect of a lame-duck presidency would have only grown.

The new elections are an attempt to salvage Macron’s second term. And he may genuinely believe voters will deliver him a fresh parliamentary majority, hoping his base of old and wealthy voters will once again show up to the polls in much greater numbers than the young and working-class voters who are less sympathetic to his presidency. Lingering animosity among various left-wing parties and a generalised fear of the far right coming to power could also play in his favour.

But there is a more cynical way of viewing Macron’s wager. As France’s far right continues to gain traction — its various obsessions propelled by a newly sympathetic media landscape and, in some cases, even inspiring pieces of legislation — it is increasingly favoured to win the 2027 presidential election. Against this backdrop, Macron’s tactic can also be seen as an effort to derail the National Rally’s march to the Elysee Palace by, counterintuitively, forcing the party to govern.

In other words, the move could be a last-ditch bid to demystify the party’s anti-establishment allure by bringing it into the messy real world of policymaking, probably as part of a wider coalition. Under this theory, even the prospects of the National Rally securing an absolute majority and naming a prime minister of its own can be seen as a kind of worthy sacrifice: better to have Prime Minister Jordan Bardella, the rising star of the National Rally, than President Le Pen.

Such a scenario is far from unlikely, as there is ample reason to believe Macron’s party will suffer at the polls this summer. For one, he is extremely unpopular.

Much of the country views him as an out-of-touch leader who favours the interests of the wealthy, and the past two years have not helped his case. After a tempestuous first term in office, he kicked off his second by ramming through a fiercely contested rise in the retirement age and clamping down on unemployment benefits. Today his approval ratings hover around 30 percent, even lower than President Biden’s.

What’s more, France’s so-called republican front — the tradition of voters and parties joining forces to support whichever candidates take on the far right — is in its death throes. Much of the responsibility lies with Macron. He and his allies opted not to endorse left-wing candidates en masse against the National Rally in the last legislative elections, making it far less likely that leftwing voters will turn out for Macronists this time around. His government has cracked down on civil liberties, smeared progressives and passed an immigration bill that Ms. Le Pen cheered as an “ideological victory.”

Now he appears willing to accept the possibility of handing over the keys of government to a party founded by a former Waffen SS section officer and a colonial nostalgist who infamously downplayed the Holocaust. Many voters may wonder: What’s the point of a republican front if the president has already decided the republic can accommodate the far right? On Tuesday the leader of the Republicans, Eric Ciotti, seemed to come to an answer when he called for an alliance with the National Rally.

Ciotti was widely rebuked and expelled from the party, but he is swimming with the tide. The National Rally is expected to win more votes than any other party. In addition to its various victories in the battleground of ideas, the party showed on Sunday that it is more than capable of turning out its base in high-stakes elections. It may also benefit from a potential alliance with Reconquest, an even more extreme party that rails against the ravages of wokism and openly embraces the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

But there is a wild card. While Macron’s strategy appeared to rule out the possibility that France’s four major left-wing parties would join forces, they announced within 24 hours their intention to do just that. The parties aim to run single candidates in each legislative district under the banner of a new Popular Front, a nod to the 1936 electoral alliance that was forged amid fears of mounting fascism.

The most recent legislative elections demonstrated the strength of the French left when it unites. In 2022 a similar alliance won more seats than the National Rally and defeated Macron’s coalition in scores of districts. This time around, left-wing parties may also benefit from their more uncompromising opposition to Ms. Le Pen and Bardella. A strong showing by the left could alter the complexion of the campaign. At the very least, the far right can expect no simple procession to power.

In 2017 Macron, then a candidate, boldly announced his intent to “eradicate the anger” fuelling support for the National Rally. Seven years later, it appears safe to say he has failed. He may well be remembered for a very different reason: not as a principled opponent of the far right, but as a reckless enabler in chief.

NYT Editorial Board
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