France elections: Will Macron’s political gamble backfire?

PARIS — French polling stations reported high turnout on Sunday for the first round of snap legislative elections — a vote that could shatter French President Emmanuel Macron’s parliamentary alliance and bring a far-right government to power here for the first time since World War II.

Here’s what we’re watching:

  • By noon local time, turnout was around 26 percent, over 7 percentage points higher than during the last legislative elections two years ago. Voting ends at 8 p.m. local time, or 2 p.m. Eastern time. France’s public broadcaster typically announces a projection soon after.
  • Sunday’s results will provide a sense of how severely voters intend to punish Macron’s centrists while boosting populists on the right and radicals on the left.
  • A second round on July 7 will answer the big questions: whether the far-right National Rally will get enough seats in the National Assembly to form a government, with its leader Jordan Bardella as prime minister, or whether France will end up with the messy scenario of a hung parliament.

Reflecting the perceived stakes of the vote, as well as how much the election announcement came as a surprise, twice as many people requested a proxy vote over the past weeks, compared with the last legislative elections two years ago, according to the French Interior Ministry.

The latest polls anticipate National Rally garnering about 36 percent of the vote in this first round; the leftist New Popular Front about 28 percent; and Together, Macron’s alliance, lagging behind with about 21 percent.

While National Rally is expected to make major gains in seats, projections show that it might fall dozens short of a majority. Analysts caution that the complexity of regional races makes predictions less accurate than for presidential elections.

Sunday’s results will only provide a first indication of what the next National Assembly, the primary legislative body in France, will look like. Few candidates running to represent one of the 577 constituencies are expected to gain enough votes to be immediately elected on Sunday. Most seats will be decided in the July 7 second round.


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Whatever the outcome, Macron can stay on as president until his term expires in 2027 — and he has said he will not resign. But a National Rally victory, with Macron’s coalition potentially falling to third place, would be a major defeat for the 46-year-old leader, effectively ending his centrist political experiment.

If National Rally wins a majority, Macron would have to share power with 28-year-old Bardella and wouldn’t be able to do much to prevent the adoption of laws passed by the parliament. Alternatively, if the elections result in a hung parliament, not much of anything will get done.

Even Macron’s allies have voiced deep frustration, saying that the dissolution of parliament came at the worst-possible time for them and could wreck the president’s legacy.

When Macron first won the presidency in 2017, he became France’s youngest head of state since ­Napoleon Bonaparte and its first modern president who didn’t belong to the center-left or center-right parties that had dominated France for decades. Having successfully outmaneuvered the traditional left and right, and having defeated nationalist Marine Le Pen, his supporters viewed him as a masterful political strategist and perhaps the only French politician capable of derailing the rise of the far right. Some of his critics say he decimated the center, making extreme parties the only viable outlets for anyone frustrated with his program.

The National Rally party grew out of a fringe movement co-founded by Le Pen’s father, a convicted Holocaust denier. But efforts by Le Pen and Bardella to make the party more broadly appealing and electable have yielded significant gains: Support has nearly doubled in the past two years, from 19 percent in the 2022 legislative elections to 36 percent now.

Macron announced snap elections after his alliance suffered a humiliating defeat in European Parliament elections on June 9. While he wasn’t required to dissolve France’s National Assembly, he said he had little choice. If he had not called the vote, he told reporters, “you would have told me: ‘This guy has lost touch with reality.’”

Macron probably hoped that higher turnout, and the higher stakes of a national election, would boost the chances of his alliance. But public sentiment in France has remained largely unchanged since the European elections, polls show.

“It’s possible that he underestimated the hate that he generates in a part of the population,” said Chloé Morin, an author and political analyst.

Macron might have also underestimated the French left. Despite its deep divisions, the left was able to cobble together a broad alliance that has overtaken Macron’s allies in the polls and now ranks second.

Macron has at times portrayed the far left as equally dangerous to the country as the far right, frustrating some leftist supporters of Macron. Vitriolic rhetoric and conspiracy theories spread by National Rally candidates and base supporters continue to raise concerns over how much it has evolved from its antisemitic and racist roots.

Almost 1 in 5 of National Rally’s candidates for parliament have made “racist, antisemitic and homophobic remarks,” Macron’s outgoing prime minister, Gabriel Attal, said in a televised debate on Thursday night.

Exit polls from the European elections three weeks ago suggest that the far right is benefiting from growing concern over living costs, despite government spending under Macron to keep inflation lower than in many other European countries. Voters fault Macron for his unpopular decision last year to increase the retirement age. Immigration and security are also rising concerns, polls show.

His surprise decision to dissolve parliament caused alarm in many European capitals. France is one of the European Union’s original members, its second largest economy and a driving force in E.U. affairs.

The National Rally party no longer advocates leaving the bloc, but many of its proposals are out of step with E.U. policies. A more Eurosceptic France could hamper Franco-German cooperation, undermine integration and generally make it more difficult to get things done.

Another concern is how a far-right win might change the union’s Ukraine policy. Le Pen is already challenging Macron’s hold on French foreign policy and defense, suggesting the president play a more honorary role as commander in chief of the armed forces.

“What arrogance!” Macron said Friday in Brussels, reacting to Le Pen’s comments in an interview with Le Télégramme newspaper that published the day before.

Far-right politicians speak “as if they were already there” in government, he said, the Associated Press reported. “But the French haven’t chosen yet.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels.

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