Election Watch

Why Macron’s Big Gamble Worked

The French president risked it all to hand the far right a stinging loss. But the celebration can’t last long. If the country is to avoid greater political chaos, voters must be encouraged to think about broader coalitions that go beyond a narrow left-right divide.  

By Jean-Yves Camus

July 2024

French president Emmanuel Macron took what may have been the biggest political gamble of his career, and the results are now clear. After the routing of his Ensemble coalition in the June EU elections, Macron dissolved parliament and called for a snap election. The first round on June 30 put Marine Le Pen’s radical-right National Rally (RN) in the lead with more than two-thirds of the vote, while the president’s party trailed in third place with just over 20 percent. Fears of an RN victory mounted ahead of the July 7 second round. Although the outcome can hardly be called a win for any political faction, it was certainly a loss for Le Pen’s party and the far right — and this makes it a stunning success for Macron.

Contrary to what most, if not all, public-opinion surveys had predicted, the RN wound up with only 143 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. These include those won in alliance with a splinter group from The Republicans, the mainstream conservative-right party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. That number is nowhere near the 289 seats needed for an absolute majority. The huge surge in voter participation in the second round as well as a flood of absentee ballots gave the New Popular Front (NFP) union of left-wing parties 182 seats and Macron’s Ensemble coalition, benefiting from the anti-RN vote, an unexpected 168 seats. The conservatives (The Republicans and its moderate allies) won 68 seats, while former political journalist Eric Zemmour’s far-right Reconquest party was wiped off the political map with no seats.

In terms of the vote count, however, the RN is ahead with 8.7 million; the NFP got 7 million; the president’s party, 6.3 million; and the conservatives, 1.5 million. No party or electoral coalition has a majority, not even a relative one. And according to the 1958 Constitution, the president will have to wait a full year before he can call another snap election. In the meantime, France is more polarized and divided than ever before. How did it get to this point, and is there any way for the country to avoid political and even institutional chaos?

Why a Snap Election?

Macron rolled the dice after the RN’s big win over his own centrist party (31.4 to 14.6 percent) in the European Parliament elections. Not wanting his legacy to be handing the presidency to Marine Le Pen in the 2027 election, Macron bet that the best way to stop the rise of RN once and for all would be to put it in power now: Having the party’s president, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, at the helm of government would prove to the people that the RN is too inefficient and amateurish to rule the country. As Macron’s Renaissance party had no clear majority in the lower house and could face a motion of no confidence at any time, he decided to have the French decide their fate at the polls.

He dismissed the National Assembly on June 9, and the first-round vote took place two weeks later. This short campaign period — the shortest in recent history — was intended as a shock that would stir fear among the French that the RN could actually win a majority while at the same time weakening the party, which has never been part of any coalition and lacks the experience of its mainstream rivals. Macron was also wagering that the RN had no sound political agenda ready if it did win. He firmly believed the party would not be able to field experienced candidates in all 577 constituencies, and he also knew that a party with only fifty-thousand dues-paying members (a far cry from the thirteen-million votes Le Pen got in 2022) had to be both underfunded and understaffed.

In other words, the president wanted the people to have a crystal-clear picture of Bardella and Le Pen as populist demagogues: Their party may have drawn in some mainstream voters, but it remains extreme and will, if elected, overspend, drive away potential investors, and bring unrest to the streets of France due to its anti-immigration, xenophobic agenda. This was a desperate move by Macron to retain power until 2027, by which time the RN will have raced ahead in all segments of society, regardless of age, location, or social class, according to surveys fielded after the EU elections.

What Was Macron Thinking?

Macron shrewdly assessed both mainstream conservatives and the left. The Republicans, heir to the parties of Jacques Chirac and Charles de Gaulle, were about to fall into oblivion with only 7.3 percent of the vote. Making matters worse for the party, its right wing, led by Nice MP Eric Ciotti, decided to join forces with the RN by endorsing 62 common candidates, including some followers of conservative firebrand Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen. The Republicans’ split went to the courts. As it remains unsettled, Macron became convinced that he could tear the conservatives apart (a goal of his since he was first elected in 2017) by rallying center-right Republican moderates around his free-market economic agenda and pro-Europe stance. The anti-immigration, nationalist wing of the party would then drift toward the extreme right, ultimately becoming a satellite of the RN.

The left in France spans a wide political spectrum, ranging from what remains of the Communist Party to the moderate social democrats of the Socialist Party, and from the Green Party to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical-left France Unbowed. These parties did not fare well in the European elections: The Communist Party won a mere 2.4 percent; the Greens fell to an all-time low with 5.5 percent, barely over the 5 percent threshold required to gain seats; the Socialist Party reached an unexpected 13.8 percent; and Mélenchon’s hardline anticapitalist, anti-EU, populist list received 9.9 percent.

Yet now, as the NFP, they will form the largest bloc in parliament. Ahead of the snap election, these left-wing parties joined forces to launch the coalition — quickly, if unexpectedly, reaching consensus on a political platform and endorsing common candidates. No one could have predicted that France Unbowed, which endorsed Trotskyite candidates, could gain enough support from the more mainstream left to get a radical antifa activist elected in the second round. But that’s exactly what happened in what became a standoff between the French left and the radical right. The alliance is more tactical than ideological, as there is no doubt that former president François Hollande, a Socialist who is now back as an MP, for example, does not share Mélenchon’s radical agenda. But it worked. The NFP performed very well at the polls, and there is now talk that Macron will pick the next prime minister from the Socialists’ ranks.

What Stopped the National Rally?

Before the election, it seemed that Bardella’s party had become like all the others. Before the 7 October 2023 terrorist attack in Israel, 52 percent of the populace considered the RN a “danger for democracy,” a huge drop from 71 percent in 2003. At the same time, 57 percent believed that Mélenchon’s beliefs and behavior — his soft (if not complacent) judgment on Islamism and his hostility to police crackdowns on crime — made him a foe of democracy, or at least of liberal democracy. His party’s absurd complacency about the antisemitism among the most extreme pro-Palestine activists, the refusal of some of the party’s top leadership to label Hamas a terrorist movement, and Mélenchon’s denial that antisemitism had been rising in France since October 7 made Macron, and many political pundits, see France Unbowed as beyond the pale.

Yet this was not the case, and for one reason: Disdain for the radical right remains stronger than for the extreme left. Moreover, many young voters, as well as many with immigrant backgrounds, see France Unbowed as the epitome of antifascism. This served the NFP at the polls, especially as the RN made a major misstep by endorsing around fifty candidates with clearly racist and antisemitic records, reinforcing the image of Bardella’s party as a Janus Bifrons, the Roman god with two very different faces. In the case of the RN, however, one face is respectable while the other, the “hidden one,” remains extreme and repulsive. On July 8, the party’s director-general, Gilles Penelle, formerly of the volkisch wing of the National Front (the RN’s forerunner) in the 1990s, resigned for his role in the party’s defeat by selecting so many unfit and radical candidates.

There were other issues, too. The media exposed the RN’s ambiguous stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, and Bardella gave no clear explanation for it. He conceded that Russia is a “multidimensional threat,” but said that he would not send French troops or instructors to help Kyiv, and that he would oppose giving missiles to Ukraine because they could kill Russian civilians. He also wants France to leave NATO, which amounts to betraying not only Ukraine but also Moldova, Poland, and the Baltic States. The RN is an isolationist party in a country that cannot afford to be isolated. This position certainly cost the party many votes. In contrast, Macron’s strong pro-EU stance, together with his high-profile foreign policy and stewardship of France’s relationship with the United States, satisfies moderates from both political camps.

Furthermore, France is a country with a strong welfare state and a long tradition of state intervention in the economy. Yet Bardella said that he thought the retirement age should be set at 66 years old and that he wanted “less state” and lower taxes. It looked like he had completely surrendered to the business lobbies. While working-class and lower-middle-class RN voters did not shift their loyalties to Macron, whose pension reform they despise, Bardella’s positions on the economy certainly cost the RN votes.

Finally, there remains a very important question, the answer to which is key for predicting the RN’s future with the next presidential election in sight: Has Le Pen’s effort to change her party’s image backfired? By trying to become mainstream and softening (a little bit) its stance on immigration, by saying that one can be a Muslim and a good French citizen at the same time, and by taking a strong pro-Israel and pro-Jewish stand (at least officially), the RN may have inadvertently sacrificed its “antiestablishment” bona fides and tarnished its image as the party that takes on the “politically correct.” And that could be working against Bardella and Le Pen.

In the meantime, French national unity is severely damaged. And so is the country’s image abroad, as Macron’s tactics remain a mystery to most foreign political analysts. In the future, there will most certainly be a heated debate about changing the constitution to shift the country from a presidential system to a parliamentary one, as citizens seem wary of giving one man and his party almost full powers. But if parliament is to regain control, voters will have to start supporting broad coalitions that go beyond the left-right divide, which is not something they are accustomed to doing. Under the parliamentary systems of the country’s Third (1870–1940) and Fourth (1946–58) Republics, the political spectrum was fragmented, and cabinets might last for a only few days or weeks. Given all this, the only way for France to avoid impending political, and possibly institutional, chaos is to ask the people in a referendum whether they want to keep their present constitution or not.

Jean-Yves Camus is a political scientist with the Fondation Jean Jaurès in Paris and an associate fellow at the Defense, Intelligence and Security Department of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM).


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images



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