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Macron Plays French Roulette, and the Far Right Is Holding the Gun

Will President Macron’s latest high-stakes gamble put him back in the driver’s seat—or will the radical right finally take power in France?

Macron holds papers in his hands.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron exits a polling booth before casting his ballot for the European Parliament election on June 9.

On Sunday, June 9, 185 million voters went to the polls across the 27 member states of the European Union to choose the 720 members of the European Parliament. Before the vote, headlines across the continent had voiced fears that Europe was about to take a sharp turn to the right. In one respect, the voting laid those fears to rest: The two European-level political groupings in which far-right parties are represented, the European Conservatives and Reformists and Identity and Democracy, gained just 13 seats. The center-right European People’s Party remains the largest group in the E.P., and with its support, German centrist Ursula von der Leyen is likely to win reelection as president of the European Commission. Business as usual, in other words.

In another respect, however, the vote reinforced the sense that something has gone seriously awry in the heart of Europe. In Germany, the anti-EU Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, scored 16 percent of the vote, a historic high. The AfD is so extreme that even France’s far-right Rassemblement National voted to expel it from the Identity and Democracy group after Maximilian Krah, then the AfD’s lead candidate, defended Hitler’s SS.

Meanwhile, in France, the Rassemblement National ticket led by party president Jordan Bardella took 31.4 percent of the vote, more than double the score of the ticket backed by President Macron (14.6 percent). This result, some eight percentage points ahead of the party’s 2019 score, was not a surprise. Polls had been predicting it for weeks. But President Emmanuel Macron’s response came as a shock: He dissolved the National Assembly and called a snap election for the end of the month (the first round will take place on June 30; the second on July 7). According to political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, “This may be the first time that a European Union parliamentary election has, in effect, brought down a national government.” Never before in its 50-year history has the Rassemblement National, or R.N., stood this close to entering government.

Historically, voters haven’t demonstrated much interest in who sits in the European Parliament. Turnout in E.P. elections is usually low. In terms of power and influence, the E.P. is the least important of the European Union’s institutions. Its most important function is to elect the president of the Commission. In conjunction with the Commission and the Council of Ministers (where member states are represented indirectly by their governments rather than directly by popularly elected representatives), the Parliament also plays a legislative role, but the process of drafting and approving legislation is so byzantine that it has provided rich fodder for a television comedy series titled Parlement. With relatively little at stake, voters therefore feel free to use E.P. elections as an opportunity to express their approval—or more often disapproval—of their national governments.

In both Germany and France, such disapproval has been festering for quite some time. Both the AfD and the R.N. denounce what they see as a Europe too open to immigration and too indifferent to national identities and sovereign rights. But without denying that racism and xenophobia are important factors in the growth of the far right across Europe, it’s important to acknowledge that these same factors have mobilized the radical right’s opponents and until now have limited the growth of extremist parties. As political scientist David Art notes, “The AfD was polling around 22 percent in January before news of a meeting in Potsdam, attended by some prominent AfD politicians, to discuss a ‘master plan’ to deport ‘non-assimilated’ German citizens sparked the largest protests against the radical right in decades. The party’s second-place finish (with 16 percent of the vote) in the E.P. elections was thus a disappointment, regardless of what its leaders are saying publicly.”

In contrast to the United States, where Donald Trump can denounce immigrants for “poisoning the blood of our country” without denting his poll numbers, European voters are still ready to punish would-be Trump emulators who indulge in crude racist language and overt threats of violence. In western Europe, at least, the radical right has progressed by softening its image and seeking a democratic rather than putschist path to power. In Italy, for example, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d’Italia Party can trace its roots all the way back to Mussolini’s fascism, outmaneuvered her far-right rival, Matteo Salvini, by tempering her rhetoric and building bridges to more centrist politicians such as E.C. President Von der Leyen.

This is a lesson that Marine Le Pen has learned well. For more than a decade she has devoted her energies to expanding her party’s base by erasing her father’s image. Whereas Jean-Marie Le Pen insisted on “France for the French,” implicitly erecting a racial barrier around citizenship, his daughter calls only for “national preference” in hiring for certain jobs. Whereas the elder Le Pen made antisemitic puns, his successor has expelled antisemites (including her father) from the party and attacked antisemitism on the left. Whereas Le Pen père was an implacable enemy of the Fifth Republic founded by his nemesis, General de Gaulle, Le Pen fille invokes “republican values” as a reason for restricting immigration.

In rebranding her party, Marine Le Pen has been greatly aided by her number two, Bardella, who became president of the R.N. in 2022 and led the party ticket in last Sunday’s election. Bardella is the type of politician the French like to classify as un gendre idéal, an ideal son-in-law: He is “articulate and clean” (as Joe Biden once said of Barack Obama). His polite demeanor disarms audiences that would be alarmed by a radical-right firebrand. And his youth serves as an alibi for his occasional gaffes: At one point in the campaign, he declared that Jean-Marie Le Pen was not an antisemite, despite his expulsion from his own party on the grounds that he was. But Bardella had not yet been born when the elder Le Pen made his notorious claim that “the Holocaust was a minor detail of World War II.” Although most observers felt that Bardella lost badly in a pre-vote debate with Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who is widely viewed as a mini-Macron, voters were apparently undeterred.

And therein lies the nub of the problem. Attal was seen as a stand-in for Macron himself. The head of state orchestrated this direct face-off between his 35-year-old prime minister, who was not even a candidate for the European Parliament, and the president of the R.N., ignoring all the other parties and thus simultaneously elevating the 28-year-old Bardella to the stature of potential prime minister and transforming what was supposed to be a European election into a national referendum on Macron’s presidency.

Having defeated Marine Le Pen twice for the French presidency, Macron hoped to pull off the same trick a third time by framing the election as a choice between Good—himself—and Evil, the radical right. He failed to register the extent to which public opinion has turned against him since his election in 2017. One French acquaintance put it this way: “I cannot wait to see the back of Macron, who has brought France to its knees.… Until we can get back to a choice between a moderate right and a moderate left, we will be paying dearly for Macron’s immaturity.”

“Immaturity” is not the word I would use. Macron’s flaws are arrogance and narcissism. It was impossible to watch his first post-dissolution press conference this Wednesday morning without feeling that he trusts no one but himself to solve the nation’s problems. When everything else is forgotten, he will be remembered as the man who declared that most of a failing meatpacking firm’s workers were “illiterate” and who told two unemployed workers that he could “cross the street” and find a job in an instant. In his press conference, he said, without evidence, that “two-thirds of the French understand and want this dissolution.” Inability to see through the eyes of others is a shortcoming in any human being; in a politician it is dangerous, because it leads to the assumption that the real majority is always with him, regardless of what the polls say.

Although it is arrogant to believe that one is always right, arrogance is not necessarily proof that one is wrong. Macron’s vision of France as a “startup nation,” which played a key role in his rise to power in 2017, has won him plaudits in certain quarters. High-tech investors such as billionaire Xavier Niel remain as enamored as ever: “The most important change we’ve had in French tech is having a young pro-business president elected. It’s not what he actually changed that mattered the most—it’s the image of France that he completely changed.”

But Niel is not representative of the typical French voter, and early analyses of last Sunday’s vote suggest that Macron has lost ground even among the professional managerial class that voted for him so strongly in 2017, as well as among retirees, another traditional source of support. Geographically, moreover, the results were unprecedented: The Rassemblement National led all other parties almost everywhere in France, except for the largest cities. Even Brittany, once a Macroniste stronghold, succumbed to the brown wave. France has never before seen such a dismal electoral map.

Only a few days have passed since the president’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly, but already the political landscape has been transformed. The party known as Les Républicains, or L.R., a (distant) descendant of the party founded by General de Gaulle, created a sensation when its leader, Eric Ciotti, decided to enter into an alliance with the triumphant R.N. This decision was greeted with howls of “Betrayal!” from within the party. L.R. Deputy Julien Dive tweeted that “we now know that Eric Ciotti would never have crossed the Channel in 1940”—in other words, the leader of the supposedly Gaullist party had shown himself to be a traitor and collaborator rather than a true follower of the General. The Republicans subsequently split, with all the other party leaders denouncing Ciotti’s unilateral decision to ally with the R.N. and ousting him as party leader. To quote Daniel Ziblatt again, “When the constitutional center right fragments, it creates a vacuum filled by the radical right. (We can see this in the contrasting fates of the AfD and the RN).”

Meanwhile, on the left, the Socialists, Greens, and Communists have joined the radical-left France Insoumise, or LFI, in what they are calling a new Popular Front. The decision came precisely 90 years to the day after Socialist leader Léon Blum agreed with Communist leader Maurice Thorez to form the original Popular Front in the face of the rising Nazi threat. The problem is that these four parties don’t see eye to eye on such fundamental issues as support for Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza. In the E.P. election, the Socialists, represented by Raphaël Glucksmann’s Place Publique movement, outpolled LFI by 13.8 to 9.9 percent, but in the apportionment of districts under the Popular Front agreement, LFI got 229 to the Socialists’ 175, with 92 for the Greens.

LFI and its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, remain unacceptable to many more moderate left-wing voters, however, so it’s difficult to predict how this unnatural alliance will fare in the first round of voting on June 30. The voting system for the National Assembly is different from last Sunday’s E.P. election, which was based on proportional representation. To be elected, a candidate for deputy must survive the first round with at least 12.5 percent of the vote in order to move on to the second round, in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

With the entire party system in the throes of a radical transformation, it’s impossible to predict how many seats each party will win. If the R.N. finishes first but fails to win an absolute majority, it’s up to Macron to decide whether he will call upon Jordan Bardella to form a government. He is not compelled to, but even a large plurality for the R.N. may force Macron’s hand—or lead him to resign, which he denies he is even considering (but which longtime adviser to many presidents Alain Minc thinks may be the corner into which he has painted himself).

The president still seems confident that his own group of deputies will continue to enjoy a relative majority in the National Assembly, but many of those concerned, including outgoing Assembly President Yaël Braun-Pivet, of Macron’s own party, don’t share his optimism and resent the fact that the president’s decision may cost them their jobs. If the left somehow manages to dominate the vote, the Popular Front could propose Mélenchon as prime minister, an offer that Macron would certainly refuse, precipitating a constitutional crisis.

The chaos thus promises to continue until at least July 7 and quite possibly beyond. Could Macron have avoided this by not dissolving the National Assembly? In principle, yes: He could have persisted with the minority government that has been in place since his reelection in 2022, invoking as necessary Article 49-3 of the Constitution, which allows certain measures to be pushed through without a majority.

But the government would almost certainly have faced a censure vote on the budget bill to be submitted this fall, and indications are that that vote would have succeeded, thus bringing down the government and leading to precisely the situation in which the country now finds itself. Rather than await impending doom, Macron chose to raise his fist to fate. His entire political career has been built on such high-stakes gambles. We will know in a few weeks’ time whether his luck has finally run out.