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The politics of surprise: Macron’s election gamble

The president was already in a bind, prior to Sunday's snap election announcement
The president was already in a bind, prior to Sunday's snap election announcement

If politicos spilled their afternoon tea in surprise at Rishi Sunak’s election announcement two weeks ago, they would have been throwing down their knives and forks over their Sunday roast in shock (and perhaps awe) at President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap parliamentary election.

After it became clear on Sunday night that his party had suffered a staggering defeat in the European elections, President Macron threw caution to the wind, taking to the airwaves to dissolve parliament and call an early election, which will be held in a mere three weeks on 30 June and 7 July. Legislative elections are held in two rounds in France. Macron’s position as president is separate, so he will stay in post whatever happens.

No one saw it coming. Not Marine Le Pen, the increasingly popular far right politician who has been tugging at Macron’s tail in the race for the French presidency since he first entered the race, despite having repeatedly demanded the dissolution in the wake of the results and at previous European elections.

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Neither did colleagues in his Renaissance Party (the new iteration of the originally-named En Marche!). Asked in the moments before the shock announcement, colleagues looked aghast at the very positing of the question. “Clearly a bad idea,” one said, eyes wide, gobsmacked. “To do so would go against democratic values,” said another. A third went bright white. “It would be a catastrophe.” After all, his party gained just 15 per cent of the French electorate’s votes, whilst Marine Le Pen’s nationalist party gained over 30.

Jupiter’s reign

What kind of person, with three years of their premiership still to go and no more (he cannot run for a third term), would suffer a massive election defeat and instantly call a snap election? Perhaps the kind of person with a penchant for drama, perhaps a man whose nickname is Jupiter.

After all, he is a man who is not averse to making grandiose statements. “Europe is mortal,” Macron warned earlier this year. He is also unafraid to play with fire. Il faut prendre son risque, is said to be his catchphrase: you must be willing to take risks. And indeed he has, in his negotiations during 2022’s fierce protests and 2019’s gilet jaune-led carnage.

Crazy! A suicide mission!

So despite pundits’ shouts of “Crazy!” and “Suicidal move!”, Jupiter is certainly not clinically insane and has undoubtedly played a strategic move. Opinion polls predicted these miserable results (14 per cent) well in advance, and the plot was hatched by a small circle of insiders – fewer than 10, Le Monde reported, over a period of “a few months”. Presumably, the plan is to call the French on their bluff.

The European elections are typically a protest vote, and the two-round system is less likely to produce wins for extremist parties. The public will be forced to choose between the centre and the extremes. So, as Macron demanded in his speech, it could work out that a broader voter base works together to keep the far right out (as Macron pleaded for in his speech).

A grand plan

Or, Macron could be playing a longer term game of Machiavellian proportions. Say that the National Rally wins a majority – there have been no opinion polls yet but this is not implausible, as they won 31 per cent in the European elections. Macron would be forced to appoint Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s 28-year-old prodigy, as his prime minister. If this is indeed part of his plan, Macron would hope that over the next two years such a scenario – called a “cohabitation” government – will reveal the true colours of the nationalists (incompetence, he would hope). Macron would be president, but in reality he would preside over foreign affairs whilst the nationalists would run interior affairs.

“Macron is going to let them taste the RN [nationalists] in a bet that they will soon be disgusted by them,” said political analyst Chloe Morin. Olivier Blanchard, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economic in Washington, deems this a “smart and the right move,” because the “incoherence” of the National Rally’s program will be discredited either in the campaign or soon after winning. “In this case, we get two bad years, compared to five if they won the 2027 elections,” he imagines.

Increasingly untenable

In reality, Macron was in a bind even before these results. The opposition parties had already threatened to instigate a no-confidence vote over the autumn budget, set to include public spending cuts. This could have forced an election.

“It is better that he acted now rather than wait for things to go wrong in the autumn,” one Macron ally told the Financial Times. “He is wrongfooting the opposition by moving fast.”

And wrongfooted they were: Marine Le Pen has claimed her party are “ready to govern”. But are they ready to campaign? With just three weeks to go until the first round, the parties are scrambling to find candidates and make pacts.

“Dissolving without giving anyone time to organise and without any campaign is playing Russian roulette with the country’s destiny,” said Valerie Pecresse of the centre right Republicans, who received just seven per cent of the vote, their lowest ever.

‘Apres moi, le deluge’

This burning phrase has been ricocheting around French twitter. It means “after me comes the flood” and has been used by, for example, Karl Marx to illustrate the destruction and chaos that leaders can leave in their wake.

Has Macron, who formed a new party in 2016, now destroyed the traditional French centre ground to make his own way to power, leaving a populist, nationalist mess as his legacy? Only time will tell.