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After EU loss, Macron bets on snap elections in France

Ella Joyner in Brussels
June 11, 2024

After losing in the EU elections 2024, Emmanuel Macron calls for snap national elections in France. He could regain ground — or simply open the door for the far right. What is Macron playing at?

Emmanuel Macron stands at a polling station, looking pensive
French President Emmanuel Macron is hoping to win back French hearts and minds in the upcoming parliamentary electionImage: Stephane Lemouton/Bestimage/IMAGO

"It's a little bit strange," one passerby, a man called Jean-Paul, told DW in downtown Paris. "It was very surprising that Macron decided to close the parliament. I don't know what to think."

Jean-Paul was not alone in his bemusement on Monday. French President Emmanuel Macron caught the nation, including many in his own Renaissance party, off guard on Sunday when he dissolved parliament and called snap legislative elections. They will take place in two rounds on June 30 and July 7.

The surprise move came after Macron's staunchly pro-EU Renaissance party, formerly known as La France En Marche! (France on the Move), suffered a wipeout loss to the far-right National Rally (RN) in the European parliamentary elections, which has put him even more on the back foot domestically. The anti-immigration, eurosceptic RN, of which Marine Le Pen was president for 10 years before handing the reins over to its current leader, Jordan Bardella, in 2022, netted over 30% of votes, compared to 15% for Renaissance.

As the results came in on Sunday night, the French president said, "The extreme right is both the impoverishment of the French and the downgrading of our country.

"So, at the end of this day, I cannot act as if nothing had happened," he said, pitching himself as giving the choice back to the people.

'It's up to the French to decide'

For Jean-Paul, the snap polls might actually have been a good call. "It would be very difficult for him to have a good government, so OK, [let's] make things clear right now, and we will see," he said.

"If the French decide to go for the extreme right, that's the choice. If they want to continue the middle way, it's up to the French to decide."

Macron's position is not directly up for grabs in the poll; he won the 2022 presidential election against Le Pen, the RN presidential challenger, securing a second and final five-year term. But control of parliament, where Macron's party lost its majority in 2022, is in play. 

Macron rolls the dice on his political future

On Monday, Renaissance began appealing to other centrist forces to team up against RN in the weeks to come.

If the far-right party emerges as the primary power in the French legislature next month, Macron could be forced to appoint current RN party leader Bardella as his fifth prime minister.

It could also leave the legacy of Renaissance, which he founded in 2016, in tatters.

'Calculated risk or mad gamble?'

On Sunday, the shock announcement immediately became the big story of the EU elections, with analysts across Europe scrambling to understand just what the French president was playing at.

Mujtaba Rahman, an EU expert with Eurasia Group consultancy, described it as either a "calculated risk or mad gamble."

Macron appears to be counting on a higher turnout and more cautious ballot-casting in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Rahman wrote on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, on Monday. European Parliament elections are often used by voters to castigate unpopular domestic governments.

Two political campaign posters for the National Rally
Bardella and Le Pen scored a record-breaking win in European electionsImage: Samuel Rigelhaupt/Sipa USA/picture alliance

In any case, Macron, who has a domestic disapproval rating of 65%, was likely to be forced into early parliamentary elections when trying to pass the 2025 budget later this year, Rahman added.

Macron may have clinched a rare second term in the Elysee in 2022, but he has presided over a minority government ever since. He has often struggled to push his agenda through parliament, more often than not forcing things with constitutional tools that have made him unpopular.

Macron aims to 'defy the polls'

Pawel Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank told DW that Macron's decision had to be seen through this lens. After his party's shortcomings in the European elections, the French president risked living the final three years of his term "under the shadow of result, where he clearly lost to Marine Le Pen." 

Macron would have had to live with her "repeatedly calling him to call on fresh elections and trying to delegitimize his cabinet," he said.

So the French president, known for his confidence, grand visions and flamboyant turn of speech, chose to go on the offensive and try to win back French hearts and minds.

"Macron believes he can defy the polls by confronting France with a stark choice between the pro-EU, pro-Ukraine & centrist status quo versus the existential risk of a far-right government which remains viscerally anti-European and has a history of … worship and support for [Russian President Vladimir Putin]," EU analyst Rahman argued.

Did Macron look to Spain for inspiration?

The French president may well be following in the footsteps of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who last year staked his career on snap elections that went his way.

The center-left incumbent defied expectations and emerged last July with a narrow majority in a left-wing coalition, seeing off contenders from the center and far right.

Le Pen, Bardella rebrand far right as mainstream party

But Zerka pointed out that if the move backfires for Macron, the winners will be Le Pen and her 28-year-old successor Bardella, who are currently in a very strong position.

"We cannot exclude a scenario in which her impact on French policy will grow very quickly, in case she becomes part of the next government after the elections in June," Zerka said.

What are the ramifications for Europe?

The coming elections will have implications far beyond French borders. If RN emerges triumphant, France will become the latest European country with a hard-right party in government, following Italy and Sweden.

Sunday night's EU elections results also dealt heavy blows to leaders in Berlin, thus affecting the political tandem of the European Union's two most powerful nations.

Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz both stand at lecterns
The results of France's upcoming election could also end up cooling the so-called Franco-German engine, which generally calls the shots in BrusselsImage: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have worked together to push through their consensus European agenda of strong support for Ukraine in its war with Russia and the prioritization of climate policy, among other things.

With the governments of Germany and France on shaky ground, both politicians look less powerful heading into the tussle for EU top jobs that follows the European Parliament elections.

But back in Paris, the concerns are more local. Emmanuelle, another passerby, told DW she was angry with Macron for his risky power play.

"I'm not sure he can win it. I don't quite understand why he did that because the way I see things, it's the path for the far right to come to the government," she said.

"I think it's a real gamble, you never know how things can turn out."

Jack Parrock and Pascal Nöthe contributed additional reporting from Paris.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler