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Analysis: What Just Happened In France And What It Means

If you just woke up, you probably saw that the National Rally, the “populist-right” party led by Marine Le Pen, won a smashing victory in elections to the European Parliament, which most observers expected, and that in response, Emmanuel Macron decided to call snap legislative elections, which almost no observers expected.

What does it mean?

To understand, we asked Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Publisher of PolicySphere and an observer of French politics, to tell us more.

On the European Parliament Election Results: The National Rally (RN) won a smashing victory, as expected, with 31% of the vote (the election is a straight-party list proportional representation vote); meanwhile Macron’s list, led by a charisma-deficient unknown, and in the background of an unpopular administration and a morose economy, got crushed, with just 14.6% of the vote. The main takeaway is that this solidifies the National Rally’s status as the main opposition party in France. Historically, the National Rally tended to underperform its polls in off-cycle or low turnout elections (European Parliament elections are among the lowest turnout elections in French politics), because of the lower turnout of its disproportionately working-class/less-educated base. This did not happen this time around, because the RN is growing beyond this base to a more representative cross-section of French society. A friend texted your correspondent his alarm at “young executive types” in his posh Paris neighborhood picking up National Rally ballots in his voting precinct. Every day, the National Rally moves closer, both ideologically and sociologically, to becoming the next version of the RPR, the neo-Gaullist party that dominated French politics for much of the post-War era, and managed to bring together a working-class culturally conservative base and large segments of middle and upper class pro-business types.

On the early legislative elections: This is a big deal. The President can call early elections of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, though in practice he has not had to since 1997 as a shift to 5 year presidential terms has meant that presidential and legislative elections were synchronized. In France’s mixed parliamentary/presidential system, the National Assembly controls the cabinet, in much the same way as the House of Commons in the Westminster system. Whoever has the majority can appoint the prime minister and the cabinet (in consultation with the President). If the President has a parliamentary majority, as has been the case since 2002, France has a united government and everything is fine. If the majority in the National Assembly opposes the president, however, this invites the dreaded scenario of “la cohabitation”, where the President and Prime Minister are political rivals. The powers of the President under cohabitation are very circumscribed, though it is not accurate to say that he would be a mere figurehead. Constitutional and political tradition still give him a predominant say in foreign affairs and defense, the ability to veto certain bills, and to make key appointments.

Cohabitation is a constitutional oddity, not envisaged by the Constitution’s drafters, and much depends on the individuals and the political circumstances. For example, during the 1986-1988 cohabitation, François Mitterrand (President) and Jacques Chirac (Prime Minister) were political rivals both running for President and happened to loathe each other at the personal level, leading to a very acrimonious situation, with the President zealously making the most of his constitutional powers; during the 1993-1995 cohabitation, Mitterrand was still president, but he was an elderly lame duck who got on well with his conservative prime minister Edouard Balladur, who shared his love of classical literature, and so the same man was happy to be a mere “British Monarch”-type figurehead and leave the running of the country to a political adversary. It is a man smarter than us who can forecast what a cohabitation between a lame-duck Emmanuel Macron and a National Rally prime minister would look like.

Why did Macron do this? This was a shock move. According to a tick-tock published by Le Monde this morning, a small team of political strategists in Macron’s office had been working on this plan in high secrecy. Given how susceptible French politics are to leaks and rumor, we offer them congratulations on their OPSEC.

In the French system, the President can call early legislative elections as a way to break a political deadlock, by asking the people for a renewed mandate. This is a well-understood gambit in the Westminster system. In France it is more unusual, but hardly unheard-of: it was previously done by Charles de Gaulle in 1962 after a parliamentary vote of no-confidence against his cabinet and in 1968 to end the political crisis caused by the May protests, and by Jacques Chirac in 1997 after historic protests and strikes against a pensions reform bill.

Your correspondent’s political insider friends, after overcoming their shock, view this choice as a 300 IQ, 4D chess-type move: the idea would be to welcome the National Rally into government, ensure their unpopularity (perhaps with the help of some “deep state” sabotage), and set up the Macron camp for victory in the more important 2027 Presidential elections.

This is not as outlandish as it may sound: the prime minister’s office has often been the “kiss of death” in French politics, as the prime minister tends to get all of the blame and none of the credit as the monarchical president stays above the fray of day-to-day politics. Many ambitious politicians saw the prime minister’s office as a stepping stone to the presidency, and instead found it to be their political graveyard. Offering the prime minister’s office to a political rival as a poisoned chalice is by no means an unprecedented move in French politics. The National Rally had been loudly calling for Macron to dissolve the National Assembly and invite the National Rally to form the cabinet, but neither side expected him to call this bluff. For Macron to invite the dreaded beast of the “far right” into government only to lead them into a trap does fit his nihilistic, taboo-breaking, 300 IQ, risk-taking personality.

A RN Member of Parliament we spoke to this morning described the situation this way: “We have to be very careful, as Macron just laid a trap for us.”

Meanwhile, an insider in Macron’s camp pointed out this to us: “Whoever has to put together the next budget will have a bullseye painted on his head. Ratings agencies have downgraded us, the country is not ready for austerity, and local governments are bleeding red ink because the real estate market has been in a coma for two years. We may as well give the job to whoever wants it.”

Alternatively, Macron may very well be betting on a victory, as unlikely as it may seem. He may be betting that the very credible prospect of the “far-right” in government would “wake up” his own side and cause them to turn out in bigger numbers than they previously have, and give him an outright majority. He has been frustrated as, since the 2022 elections, his party only has a relative majority in the National Assembly, and has had to cobble together coalitions with smaller parties or to call confidence votes to pass bills.

What now? According to the Constitution, elections must be held between 20 to 40 days after the President has called for them, so the timetable is very short. Legislative elections are a two-round constituency-by-constituency vote, which tends to work against the RN as opposing parties usually form anti-“far-right” second-round coalitions. The National Assembly has 577 seats, meaning an absolute majority is 289 seats. As polls currently stand, the RN would get between 250 and 300 seats in a legislative election, so it’s anybody’s guess whether they would get an outright majority. And they probably need a full majority, outright, not just a relative majority, as they would very quickly lose a vote of no-confidence as the other parties gang up on them. LR, the traditional right party, has already said that it will form an alliance only with the center and center-right–the RN may pick off individual members here and there, but a party-wide deal is off the table.

There are almost too many scenarios, and scenarios-within-scenarios, to contemplate. If there is a hung Parliament, what will happen is anybody’s guess. If there is an absolute RN majority, the RN will be forced by their past commitments to form a government, but how they will govern, and whether they will be able to govern in the face of almost certain “deep state” sabotage, is anybody’s guess.

One thing is for certain: things just got a lot more interesting.

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