After his allies scored just 15% in the European elections, last night Emmanuel Macron called a snap election for the French parliament. It’ll pave the way for a new government — and it could raise Marine Le Pen’s party to power for the first time.

Rassemblement National party leader Marine Le Pen (L), followed by party president Jordan Bardella, arrives on stage for an address after French president Emmanuel Macron announced he is calling for new general elections, Paris, France, June 9, 2024. (Julien de Rosa / AFP via Getty Images)

Is president Emmanuel Macron handing the keys of the French prime minister’s office to the far right? Minutes after Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National won an historic victory in Sunday’s elections for the European Parliament, Macron announced the dissolution of the National Assembly. On June 30, French voters will therefore return to the polling booths for the first round of snap parliamentary elections that have taken the entire political and media class by surprise.

“I decided to give back to you the choice over our governing future and therefore dissolve the National Assembly,” Macron said in a televised address on Sunday night. “This decision was not taken lightly, but it’s most of all an expression of confidence, my confidence in the French people’s ability to make the right choices for themselves and for the coming generations.” The largest force to emerge from a July 7 runoff vote will have the first opportunity to form a new government, in what will likely be a period of major political instability.

France’s president has long claimed that his chief political mission was containing Le Pen and the rise of the French hard right.

The European parliament vote on Sunday was a monumental defeat for Macron. Although his governing strategy has largely consisted in playing off the far right’s obsessions with national identity, Islam, and immigration, France’s president has long claimed that his chief political mission was containing Le Pen and the rise of the French hard right.

Once again, the ultimate beneficiary of this triangulation was the far right itself. Under lead candidate Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National claimed a commanding 31.5 percent in Sunday’s vote. In line with the European far right’s across-the-board success in these elections, it is expected to elect a record thirty-one members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg (MEPs). The titular party president since 2022, the twenty-eight-year-old Bardella will likely lead its snap election campaign, and therefore now stands as its prime-ministerial candidate presumptive. Le Pen — the party’s real power broker — has said that she “does not want to be prime minster,” as she bides her time for the next presidential elections in 2027.

Shattered

The results of Sunday’s vote again revealed a shattered French party system. Macron’s centrist list led by Valérie Hayer sunk to an embarrassing 14.6 percent and looks slated to elect a mere thirteen MEPs — down from the twenty-three in 2019 when it was all but tied with Le Pen’s party. Hayer was closely followed by Raphaël Glucksmann, leader of the center-left Parti Socialiste, who won 13.8 percent — also entitling it to thirteen seats. In fourth place, Manon Aubry of France Insoumise looks set to finish just shy of 10 percent, sending nine representatives to the European Parliament.

A Le Pen victory is not inevitable, and it remains unclear who will stand beside Macron as head of government when Paris hosts the Summer Olympics in late July.

The politicians making the rounds on French TV news on late Sunday night all portrayed confidence in the face of the imminent new elections. But the enthusiasm was most palpable in the Rassemblement National, which now has a credible chance of riding the wave of the EU elections into national-level power. “I can only salute this decision,” a jovial Le Pen said moments after Macron’s address, her loyal lieutenant Bardella grinning at her side. “We are ready. . . . The results of the European elections proved that we are the major alternative force for France. We are ready to govern if the French grant us their trust in the upcoming elections.”

That outcome is not inevitable, however, and it remains unclear who will stand beside Macron as head of government when France hosts the Summer Olympics in late July. A set of crucial negotiations and interparty wrangling will be held in the coming hours and days — and months, in the likely hypothesis that the upcoming vote results in another divided parliament. And we should also bear in mind that the shock of Macron’s decision could still yield surprises from France’s divided left-wing opposition.

Macronism on Life Support

This dissolution of parliament is an extremely risky decision for Macron. He has been politically weak since June 2022, when the last parliamentary elections resulted in a divided National Assembly. In that election, just weeks after his reelection as president, he had the largest force in the parliament behind him — but not an absolute majority.

Before last night, the general assumption seemed to hold that a dissolution in the immediate aftermath of the EU elections was a long shot. A fresh vote would perhaps come after the Olympics, once the dust from the European campaign had settled, or at a point when the president’s party could work from a position of relative strength. Many also speculated that Macron would make peace with his declining political capital and trudge along to the end of his term in 2027 with only a relative majority. Since 2022, he has leaned on exceptional constitutional provisions that allow a minority government to pass certain pieces of legislation without a majority, and also relied on the tacit support of the center-right opposition. Despite his low popularity, he has still achieved some legislative victories since 2022, namely an increase in the retirement age and an immigration-reform package largely inspired by the hard right.

Exposing the extent of Macron’s weakness, the results of the European elections would likely have only made the right-wing opposition parties in parliament even more restive. Leaving aside his outsize faith in his own strategic audacity, his main calculation is that the European elections will prove to be an exception: this vote is, after all, often characterized by poor turnout and used as a low-stakes protest vote. The EU election is also a one-round vote, in contrast to the runoff system used in France’s national elections. Macron’s best hope is that the opposition forces to his immediate left and right remain divided, meaning that his party’s candidates can finagle their way to a number of runoff contests against the Rassemblement National. This would allow them to invoke the so-called republican front that has traditionally united voters behind the candidate facing off against the far right.

Macron’s main calculation is that the European elections will prove to be an exception: this vote is, after all, often characterized by poor turnout and used as a low-stakes protest vote.

Ostensibly a call to all centrist forces, yesterday’s offer by Macron’s party to not run candidates against forces in the “republican” candidates is predominantly an overture to the Républicains, the center-right force that has already shed many of its prominent and up-and-coming figures to Macron since 2017. But the remnants of that party again seem unlikely to bite — and have every reason to want to ride out a possible implosion of Macronism, in the hope that they’ll turn into the natural receptacle for the most conservative wing of the president’s coalition.

But that bet, just like Macron’s repeated overtures to his right, misses the degree to which Le Pen’s party has already succeeded in becoming the political center of gravity. After all, the 31.5 percent won by Le Pen’s party in Sunday’s vote is not far from the level of support that could once be expected by either the dominant center-left or center-right parties in the heyday of France’s postwar party system.

A Popular Front?

These parliamentary elections were also timed to exploit the deep divisions on the French Left, whose four main parties totaled roughly 31.5 percent on the June 9 vote. In recent months, the center-left establishment in the Parti Socialiste has exploited the spurious allegations of antisemitism against Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, pointing to the party’s positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Ukraine crisis, and the temperament of de facto party leader Mélenchon to avert unity in the European elections. This has largely fractured the NUPES (New Ecological and Social People’s Union) alliance formed in the lead-up to the 2022 parliamentary elections, despite the fact that the alliance nearly delivered a stunning parliamentary victory that year.

The forces pushing against a renewed unity are stronger today. The relative success of Glucksmann, the anointed candidate of the Parti Socialiste élite, on June 9 is being pointed to as grounds to turn the page on Mélenchonism and rebuild any possible left-wing alliance on terms set out by the old center-left establishment. But those could be a nonstarter not only for the dominant current in Mélenchon’s France Insoumise — the largest left-wing party in the now-dissolved parliament — but also for a significant share of voters on the broader left.

It may be long shot, but France’s left-wing parties could still disprove Macron’s gamble that they are intractably divided.

Macron knows how divided the Left really is. He is betting that a factional clash will mean that just enough left-wing voters will remain to support Macronist candidates in any possible second-round runoffs against the far right. It is a highly risky calculation, especially given how much of Macron’s presidency has been experienced as a litany of insults for progressive and left-wing voters, many of whom now ask: Beyond the optics, what is the real difference between Macron and Le Pen?

It may be long shot, but France’s left-wing parties could still disprove Macron’s gamble that they are intractably divided.

A possible reboot of the NUPES alliances will require resolving a host of questions. Would a combined left-wing list largely reselect the ongoing candidates in the current parliament, meaning that France Insoumise would remain structurally advantaged within any revived alliance? Or should the Parti Socialiste be granted more advantageous districts given the results of the latest EU elections? An electoral alliance is also an agreement on the program and personnel of government: Can a new alliance be formed on the grounds of the 2022 NUPES program, largely premised on that of France Insoumise and the call for a clear rupture with neoliberalism? Or to what degree should modifications be made in favor of the center? Thanks to his relative success in the spring 2022 presidential elections, where he scored one point less than Le Pen, Mélenchon had the leverage to impose himself as NUPES’s de facto prime-ministerial candidate in that June’s elections. But that clout has frayed in the years since, as the deep loathing and distrust of the France Insoumise leader among the top brass of the other left-wing parties has become only more uninhibited. So, could it be time for a new left-wing frontrunner?

There will be intense negotiations between (and even within) the left-wing parties in the days to come. But there is a narrow window to restore an alliance. France Insoumise has every reason to hold fast to the clear unity platform that provided the groundwork for the Left’s success in the 2022 parliamentary elections. Even if they may have a certain distaste for France Insoumise’s founder, every Socialist, Communist, and Green MP in the outgoing parliament won on the backs of a clear program for “ecological planning,” reinforced public services, and greater wealth redistribution.

It might be worth questioning the current institutional inertia and assumptions among France Insoumise’s inner circle, which hold that the only unity figure is Mélenchon. Still, one France Insoumise figure, a Mélenchon loyalist, told Jacobin that the “Union populaire” is the only way forward — here referring to its own electoral vehicle created ahead of the 2022 presidential contest. The source added “it’s the other weak-kneed parties on the left that need to fall into line behind us.”

The France Insoumise leadership looks on with suspicion as François Ruffin — an MP in its National Assembly group, but often at odds with the party’s main hierarchy — could be jockeying to establish an alternative unity candidacy. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution announcement, he called for the creation of a left-wing “popular front,” referencing the 1936 electoral alliance that saw a left-wing government win power in a Europe turning toward fascism.

“Nothing is inevitable, we can win this,” Ruffin told France Inter radio on Monday morning. He then laid out a programmatic framework for a new alliance, including propositions for new taxes on capital, the pegging of salaries to inflation, and institutional reforms to the constitution such as an expansion of referendum powers. It’s a short sketch, but it remains to be seen what else of the 2022 program would be watered down for such a unity ticket; if it goes too far, the bulk of France Insoumise will refuse.

“We will not get behind a pandering candidate, including Ruffin,” the France Insoumise source, an outgoing MP, told Jacobin, before referring to the three leading figures in the party: “Mélenchon, [Mathilde] Panot, and [Manuel] Bompard — we have what we need for a prime minister.”

Other leaders on the Left have hinted that they are amenable to Ruffin’s proposition, however, including the leadership of the Communists and the Greens. Parti Socialiste general secretary Olivier Faure held out until late 2023 against the more right-wing faction in his party that sought a rupture with the NUPES alliance. Joining in the same radio slot with Ruffin on Monday morning, Faure claimed that he “shares the same vision” as the independent-minded France Insoumise MP.

Cool Heads

If left-wing unity is to be achieved, there are two temptations that need containing. First and foremost, it is essential that the cooler heads prevail in the Parti Socialiste; if Olivier Faure is serious about unity, he needs to hold a tighter leash around a vainglorious Glucksmann, who said just last week that the European elections represented a chance for “a total rupture” with France Insoumise. It has no grounds to interpret its — altogether disappointing — score in the EU election as a stunning mandate for a return to the centrism of the François Hollande era.

The most loyal supporters of Mélenchon in France Insoumise would also be advised to tread cautiously. It would be wise to make a show of openness to putting forward a leading candidate more amenable to the other left-wing parties. That one of those possible unity figures is an outgoing parliamentarian from France Insoumise’s own ranks should make that into a relatively easy concession. It’s not too late to avoid the worst.

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