Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Emmanuel Macron wants a snap election to get him out of a deep hole

Sometimes you have no choice but to roll the dice. That is where France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, found himself on the night of June 9th. He had just received a thumping in elections to the European Parliament, in which the National Rally (RN), led by Marine Le Pen, won twice as many votes as his own party, Renaissance. Already, in his own national parliament, he has to govern with a minority, cobbling together support as best he can to get his government’s domestic legislation through, usually with great difficulty. The boost to Ms Le Pen’s standing from her big Euro-win risked making him a lamer duck than ever, with the very real prospect that the opposition would anyway force an election later in the year by voting down his budget.

An untenable position, then. As in America, French presidents cannot pass much of their domestic agenda without a majority in the legislature; Mr Macron has a prime minister, who runs the day-to-day business of the government, but in the normal course of things the government still needs to win votes to pass legislation. At the moment, Mr Macron’s party has no majority, but neither can anyone else form a majority government.

Will Mr Macron’s bold move—to seize the initiative by calling a snap election at the end of this month, a full three years early—make his situation better or worse? The vote could work to his advantage. His gambit is likely to force the French to confront the choice between centrism and the extremes. In a two-round system, centrist voters will have a chance to vote tactically in the second round to keep the RN at bay. If, as is possible, his party does not get much closer to a majority, he may be able to persuade the moderate parties to work together to keep the RN from forming its own government. Neither the French Socialists nor the Republicans, the centre-right party, will want to see the hard-right RN take over the prime minister’s office. Knocking heads together might be a lot easier if there is a real prospect of that happening. That may well be Mr Macron’s thinking.

However, France also faces a more alarming—if less likely—outcome: the RN could win the parliamentary election, or at least be the dominant party in the Assembly. That does not mean Ms Le Pen would become prime minister; she says she would instead put forward her young protégé, Jordan Bardella. That would allow her to keep her powder dry for the presidential race in 2027.

How bad might a putative RN government be for France? Not catastrophic perhaps. It would run most domestic policy and would draw up the budget. So there would be lots of areas in which the party could drag France further from the centre towards their hard-right positions. However, the French constitution reserves huge powers for the president, particularly over foreign and defence matters. Hence, France’s relations with the European Union and its support for Ukraine could not be much altered by the populists.

The question is how that in turn might affect the election that really matters, the presidential vote in 2027 in which Mr Macron cannot be a candidate. This would critically depend on how well the RN was seen to have performed in office. On the one hand, French prime ministers tend to get the blame for everything that goes wrong, while presidents can float above the fray. That is what happened to Elisabeth Borne, who served under Mr Macron and was replaced in January. It is especially true in a period of cohabitation, as in the 1990s when Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac had prime ministers from different parties.

On the other hand, French voters have in the past always enforced a taboo about the hard right holding national office. Ms Le Pen has already done a lot to make her party more professional. If a RN prime minister surprised France on the upside, it could both make Ms Le Pen into a more normal candidate and enhance her popularity—rather like Italy’s right-wing prime minister, Georgia Meloni.

Yet Ms Le Pen has not yet shown that she aims to follow in Ms Meloni’s less extreme footsteps. If she were to win the presidency in 2027 with her current policies, it really would be alarming: she is pro-Russia, against heavily arming Ukraine, and deeply sceptical of the EU even if she no longer says that she wants France to leave it. A Le Pen presidency would be bad news for anyone who thinks that deeper integration is a necessary part of the solution to many of the problems Europe faces, from its deficit in technology to its energy transition. Race and religious relations in France would worsen and disruptive xenophobes like Hungary’s Viktor Orban would gain a powerful ally. The countries of the Balkans, banging on Europe’s doors for entry, would have longer to wait.

The irony in all of this is that what looks like a crisis in France has actually distracted attention from an election that was not as dire as centrists had feared. Europe as a whole saw no right-wing surge. The parties of the hard right collectively picked up only three or four percentage points of support; they did well in Germany and in Austria, as they did in France, but elsewhere they had a disappointing night. That slight loss of ground for the political centre will make governing in Brussels a little trickier, but not much. Yet the surge in France, and a smaller one in Germany, is hogging the headlines, in part due to Mr Macron’s surprise. We hope it was worth it.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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