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As the results of the European elections came in on June 9, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to dissolve the French Parliament and call for snap elections. French citizens found themselves in a paradoxical situation wherein, having voted for representation in the European Parliament, they involuntarily dissolved their national Parliament.

The timing couldn’t be worse, with the Olympic Games arriving in a month, and a tense domestic situation due to the escalation with Russia and the renewal of Islamic terrorism risks. But the results of the elections were indeed a blow for the president: the far-right or national-populist Rassemblement national (National Rally, NR) of Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen reached 31.4%, twice the result of the President’s party which itself received a humiliating 14.6%.

The conflating of European and national politics is nothing new, but it was specific in the French case: first because the French population has always projected European politics as the continuation or extension of domestic politics, and second because Emmanuel Macron’s egocentric and “Jupiterian” (top-down) way of doing politics has nationalized the European debate to the extreme.

And indeed, the President and his team overdid it: Macron spoke several times in the last weeks and on everything—from the war in Ukraine to the Olympic Games, from inflation control to climate change. This catch-all strategy undermined his role as the representative of the nation sitting above everyday politics. His hope of pedagogically explaining to his citizens why voting for his party was a better choice than voting for his opponents crashed—the more he talked, the more people accumulated resentment.

The government’s main figures were also asked to overdo their presence on all television and radio shows, including Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, presented as the “anti-NR weapon,” who intervened personally several times to rescue the presidential party candidate, Valérie Hayer, who was incapable of securing popular support.

The decision to organize snap elections seems to have been another of these Jupiterian moves, taken by the President and his small group of advisers, against his government’s opinion. Indeed, the decision sacrifices his newly appointed, young, dynamic and (relatively) popular Prime Minister, who only came into office in January. It also put at risk all the MPs from the president’s party who suddenly see their mandate put back on the electoral table.

The European elections could’ve been sold as a testament of stability. Macron’s decision undermines this narrative by painting the EU elections not as a victory for stability, but as a catalyst for chaos.

And last but not least, it jeopardizes European politics by creating turmoil in a key EU member. The European elections could’ve been sold as a testament of stability, wherein—even if the far right rose in many countries—the traditionally dominant European People’s Party and its main allies could still secure a majority. But Macron’s decision undermines this narrative by painting the EU elections not as a victory for stability, but as a catalyst for chaos.

Why a dissolution?

Why did Macron make such a decision? He had already used all the possible tricks to exit a political crisis, such as changing the Prime Minister. He could have just continued as usual, arguing that European elections are not a vote on domestic politics. There are three main speculations behind Macron’s sudden and risky decision—three gambles, all risky.

Gamble One: Protest versus Adhesion

The first possible explanation is that the President was hampered by a Parliament without a presidential majority, and the country was becoming increasingly ungovernable. He therefore decided to push voters to reflect on and decide whether the recent vote for the NR is a protest vote or one of genuine support. His hope—clearly expressed in his Sunday allocution—is to see the French people become “reasonable” by refusing to put the NR in power, thereby confirming that the European election results were mostly a protest vote. But polls suggest that Macron is mistaken and that the popular support for the NR is a genuine vote of adhesion, or at least a vote to give them a chance to show if they can perform better than the “establishment.”

Gamble Two: International versus Domestic

The second possible explanation is that the President is tired of domestic politics after seven years of a difficult reign that began with the Yellow Vests, and is ready to loosen up control and focus on the international scene instead. Indeed, it is the privilege of the President to direct foreign policy, and Macron has personal ambitions to become the leader of a new Europe, at a time when German Chancellor Scholz looks to be a weak figure and the US is in turmoil. But ceding the domestic scene to his opponent is a dangerous game. It ignores how much the world is shaped by the interplay of domestic and international dynamics today: losing control of domestic public opinion will hamper his foreign policy goals, such as the rhetorical, and potentially military, escalation with Russia and support for a re-foundation of the European Union.

It is also possible that the President is tired of domestic politics after seven years of a difficult reign and is ready to loosen up control and focus on the international scene instead.

Gamble Three: Abusing Bardella to kill Le Pen

Macron thinks he would win the internal battle of the cohabitation, and that Bardella’s loss of credibility would be so immense that Marine Le Pen would lose some of her legitimacy too. This too is a very risky game.

The third possible explanation is that the President is attempting to play multidimensional chess with the NR: by letting Bardella become Prime Minister, he hopes the NR will fail at governing the country such that it would impact Marine Le Pen’s expected campaign for the next presidency. As Macron stated, “I do not want to give the keys to power to the far right in 2027.” This implies Macron thinks he would win the internal battle of the cohabitation, and that Bardella’s loss of credibility would be so immense that Marine Le Pen would lose some of her legitimacy too. This too is a very risky game, as the public opinion has little chance to fall in love with its president again. Moreover, Bardella, if elected Prime Minister, will be able to put all the blame for his non-executed promises on the cohabitation and the President, and therefore reinforce the idea that Le Pen needs to be elected to see genuine transformations.

The death of Macronism?

But maybe even more important is the blow that Macron’s decision is bringing to Macronism. Since his first elections in 2017, the President advocated for a political credo of being “neither right nor left”, or more exactly “en même temps” (at the same time), that is a strategy of moving beyond the right-left divide and traditional parties. His team worked hard to portray Macronism as a bulwark against the far right, constructing a binary of Macron versus Le Pen, while demonizing as a danger to the republican order both Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the provocative and vocal leader of the far-left La France Insoumise, and radical environmentalist movements.

But the results of the European elections are proof positive of the failure of Macronism’s rhetorical game. Collectively, the anti-Macron Right collected almost 40% of the vote (to the NR’s 32% should be added 5% for the more radical far-right party Reconquête! of Eric Zemmour and Marion Maréchal, and several smaller far-right, sovereigntist, anti-EU parties collected some other 2-3% more votes). The Left collected one-third of the vote, divided among several competing parties (socialist, green, France Insoumise, the communists, etc.).

Surveys for the forthcoming parliamentary elections of June 30 and July 7 seem to confirm that Macronism has lost the battle of bypassing the right-left divide. Two big constituencies, clearly Right and clearly Left, now dominate the political spectrum, with Macron’s party far away in a third position. But if the right-left divide has come back against Macron’s “en même temps” stance, political parties are deeply shaken, and on that, Macron’s move offers a healthy reality check.

The results of the European elections are proof positive of the failure of Macronism’s rhetorical game…Whatever the results of the parliamentary elections, they will force Macron to recognize that his way of doing politics does not convince a large majority of French citizens.

Further to the right than National Rally, Reconquête! has been collapsing, with Marion Maréchal (who just headed the party’s list for the European election) calling on voters to support NR, before being immediately expelled by Éric Zemmour. The fate of Zemmour’s party looks bleak, as Marion may now rejoin her aunt Marine Le Pen and bring with her a Catholic conservative electorate. Les Républicains, the mainstream right, close to Macron’s party in their policy preferences, has been divided too: its president Eric Ciotti called for an alliance with the NR but was voted out by his colleagues who want to pursue the traditional cordon sanitaire against the far right. On the left, reorganization is on its way too, with a new Popular Front uniting socialists, greens, and communists but hesitating toward La France Insoumise. The new Popular Front, still in search of its leader, hopes to defeat the far right and access Prime Ministership, or at least arrive second.

Whatever the results of the parliamentary elections, they will force Macron to recognize that his way of doing politics does not convince a large majority of French citizens. And in case the National Rally arrives in power, the challenges of governance, especially in a difficult financial climate—the French state may need to dramatically reduce its spending in the years to come—and in a rapidly evolving international scene, will be the real reality check—and probably a more painful one that what Giorgia Meloni has been experiencing in neighboring Italy.


Marlene Laruelle is a Research Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the George Washington University and the director of the Illiberalism Studies Program.

Image made by John Chrobak using “Loriol-du-Comtat panneaux élections européennes 2024,” by Marianne Casamance licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “Éric Zemmour, BFM TV, mai 2022 (52121678246),” by Anh De France licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic; “MEPs call for action on energy prices, enlarge Schengen to Romania and Bulgaria – 52566697316,” by European Parliament licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic; “Emmanuel Macron – May 2024,” by Christophe Licoppe / European Union, 2024 / EC – Audiovisual Service licensed under CC Attribution 4.0 International; “20240519_VIVAEUROPA24LEPEN-6,” by Vox España (in the Public Domain).

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