French President makes biggest gamble of his career

June 17, 2024 22:31

French President Emmanuel Macron is making the biggest gamble of his seven years in power by calling elections for the national Parliament that may give his fiercest opponents control of the government.

On June 9, Macron announced elections, to be held on June 30 and July 7, for all 577 seats in Parliament. He did this just one hour after the far right Rassemblement National (RN) won an unprecedented 31.4 per cent of the French votes for seats in European Parliament. That was more than double the 14.6 per cent won by Macron’s Renaissance Party (RP).

Before the dissolution of Parliament, the RP held 171 seats and governed with the help of two allied parties who had a total of 78. The RN had 88 seats.

Were the European vote to be repeated on June 30 and July 7, the RN would become the largest party in Parliament and likely to form the next government. The prime minister would be its leader, the charismatic 28-year-old Jordan Bardella.

Macron would be forced to share power with him, under what is known in France as “cohabitation”. The two men have completely different views and policies. Macron would be in charge of defence and foreign policy, and Bardella of domestic policy. It would be a most uncomfortable “marriage”.

So why did Macron make this high-risk decision? “I trust French voters to make a distinction between expressing anger at the ballot box in the European elections and actually risking an extremist government in France that will destroy the cohesion of society and wreck the economy,” he said.

“Many French people do not recognise themselves in this extremist fever and will vote to save the centre ground,” he said.

He said that the RN’s economic programme was unaffordable. It includes leaving the retirement age at 62, instead of 64 as Macron has proposed: cutting taxes on electricity and fuel bills: reducing VAT on food and household products: exempting workers under 30 from income tax: and nationalising motorways to cut high tolls. It also wants a “national preference” for public procurement, which would go against EU single market rules.

Economists say that there is no money to fund these radical changes. “The programme of the RN is a pure opposition platform, gifts to those with legitimate or illegitimate grievances. Gifts cost money. The money is not there,” said Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist of the IMF.
Consultancy Asteres said that the RN’s spending would increase France’s deficit to economic output ratio by an extra 3.9 percentage points a year.

In the two days after Macron’s announcement, investors cut the market value of French banks BNP Paribas, Societe General and Credit Agricole by 10 billion euros. The investors saw them as proxies for the economy.

Bardella is singularly unqualified to run one of Europe’s most sophisticated economies. In 2012, he dropped out of the Sorbonne University in Paris to work full-time for RN. He has worked for them ever since and has no experience in government or business.

His remarkable success in the European elections was due to his good looks, eloquence and mastery of social media, especially TikTok. He projects a clean, modern image far from the anti-Semitic and pro-Vichy views of the National Front, the party from which the RN was formed.

He was able to attract the varied discontents toward Macron. Many French dislike him as elitist, remote from common people, favouring the rich over the poor and too involved in foreign, rather than domestic, issues. They also blame him for allowing in too many immigrants, especially Arabs and Africans. They see their country in decline and hold him responsible.

Some analyse Macron’s decision in this way. If the RN wins and forms the next government, it will perform badly, be unable to control spending and the national deficit and lose the confidence of the public. This means that, in the next Presidential election in 2027, its candidate would not win. That is likely to be Bardella or Marine Le Pen, president of the RN in Parliament.

On the other hand, if the voters agree with Macron, they will give his party and its allies a majority in the Parliament.

But his gamble could fail. The RN could form the new government and prove smarter and more pragmatic than he believes, like the right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni in Italy. In 2027, it could win both the Presidency and the Parliament.

That would give it power to make sweeping changes. So could this upcoming vote be the French version of Brexit in 2016, which has turned out to be an economic disaster for Britain?

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.