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Why did Macron call snap elections and what does it mean for France?

By Jessica Phelan - RFI
France © REUTERS - Christian Hartmann
MON, 10 JUN 2024 LISTEN
© REUTERS - Christian Hartmann

Polls had barely closed for the European elections when President Emmanuel Macron called voters back to the ballot box to elect a new French parliament – three years ahead of schedule. What's behind his surprise decision, and what happens next?

"After today, I cannot act as if nothing had happened," Macron told viewers in a prime-time address to the nation on Sunday night, reacting to early results from EU elections that showed a surge for his far-right opponents.

Their gains – which saw the far-right National Rally (RN) win more than double the number of seats in the European Parliament that Macron's centrist bloc secured – would push him to give French voters the chance to change their own parliament early, he announced.

"France needs a clear majority if it is to act in serenity and harmony," Macron said, "not political bargains and precarious solutions". 

"Nothing could be more republican than giving a sovereign people their say."

But if the President presented it as the only democratic thing to do, others say his move is a gamble calculated to give the opposition an opportunity to fail.

At the head of a minority

Macron's argument is that the EU election results set the nail in the coffin of a parliament that was already struggling. 

His Renaissance party and its allies lost their majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of France's parliament, in the last legislative elections of June 2022.

That vote resulted in heavy losses for Macron's bloc and gains for both the far left and far right. The President's coalition remained the largest faction, but the RN became the single biggest party opposing it.

Since then Macron's camp has struggled to get bills passed. For some of its flagship measures – notably the pension reforms that caused months of protests last year – it bypassed the assembly altogether by invoking a constitutional clause that allows legislation to be passed without a vote, a controversial measure intended as a last resort.

The RN's success in the European elections made Macron's government look even weaker. With 31.4 percent of the vote to the Macronists' 14.6 percent, RN leader Jordan Bardella called the results a "stinging rejection" of the president.

It's not quite the trouncing the RN would claim when barely more than one in two eligible French voters turned out, but if nothing else it's a sign that Macron's supporters are less enthusiastic than Bardella's.

The President is banking on voters proving more motivated when it's their national parliament at stake. 

In his speech, he said he trusted the French public to show up "massively" for the snap polls – as well as to choose wisely. 

Fractured political landscape

But with less than three weeks until the first round of voting on 30 June, Macron hasn't left himself much time to win anyone over. 

And if he's relying on mainstream parties across the spectrum to unite against the far right – as they have done in French elections of the past – that might be a losing bet. 

The Republicans, the right-wing party that dominates the upper-house Senate, have already ruled out an alliance with Macron's camp.

Meanwhile the left is splintered, the broad coalition that helped it make gains in parliamentary elections two years ago having imploded amid disagreements over the war in Gaza. 

The only faction heading into the snap polls with momentum, in fact, is the RN – which welcomed Macron's decision warmly. 

It's far from guaranteed a win, however. A group needs 289 out of the assembly's 577 seats for an outright majority; currently the RN has 89, and a similar percentage of the vote that it won on Sunday would get it around 182. (Macron's bloc, for context, has 245.) 

The more likely outcome, according to pundits, is that the vote will produce an even more fragmented parliament and greater deadlock.

Cynical move?

None of this is any secret to Macron – which has led some to suspect that his decision to call elections is a cynical ploy to trip up the RN.

Either they can't repeat their success of the European elections when more voters show up, or they end up repeating it and still not having enough seats to govern alone. 

Most cynically of all, it's been suggested, Macron may be willing the RN to get its first ever shot at governing France – calculating that will undercut its efforts to portray itself as an anti-establishment force for change.

Whoever ends up leading the parliament, Macron will remain president. His time in office, which is decided in separate elections, is not up until 2027.

Before then, appointing Bardella prime minister – as Macron would be forced to do in the event of an RN-led parliament –could be calculated to weaken the party and stop it claiming France's highest job.

That's what Macron himself has done in the past two presidential elections of 2017 and 2022, which put him head to head against the RN candidate Marine Le Pen.

He won't be eligible to stand again in 2027, having already served the maximum two terms. But his "poker play", as French media has dubbed the choice of snap polls, might just be his attempt to have a say in how the next presidency shapes up.

In the meantime, it's already having concrete consequences. The National Assembly was dissolved with Macron's announcement, meaning legislation due for debate – including a bill on assisted dying and the proposed merger of French public broadcasters – is now on hold.

Candidates have until 14 June to announce they're running, and campaigning officially begins on 17 June.

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