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Élection dangereuse

Emmanuel Macron risks it all

Artillery Row

At 9pm on Sunday evening, an hour after the polls closed and no sooner had the results of the French elections to the European Parliament been known than Emmanuel Macron announced that he would dissolve the National Assembly. The elections for the new deputies will take place on 30 June and 7 July (since France has a two-round system for electing deputies).

This decision has had the effect of a bombshell, and no doubt this was the desired effect. Everything points to the fact that the President of the Republic took his decision alone, or at least kept it secret until the end, not only from the media of course, but also from the main people involved : the MPs in his parliamentary group, the members of his government and the leaders of his political party (Renaissance).

You don’t become President of the Republic without being extremely ambitious

But amazement is not an end in itself, and it will soon dissipate. The two questions that naturally spring to mind are : what are Emmanuel Macron’s motives for declaring this dissolution and what results does he hope to achieve?

Obviously, only he knows the answers to these questions. We, who do not have access to the secrets of his heart, can only speculate. The expression “educated guess” is perfectly appropriate here. 

Here, then, are the answers to these two questions that seem most plausible to me.

We can start with this indisputable fact: in three years’ time, Emmanuel Macron will have to leave the Elysée Palace, since the Constitution of our Fifth Republic prohibits him from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. Emmanuel Macron is the only leading politician not to have any personal electoral deadlines in 2027, as he likes to repeat to prove his disinterestedness.

However, this in no way means that he no longer has any personal ambitions. It simply means that his ambition is no longer electoral. You don’t become President of the Republic without being extremely ambitious and, like all very ambitious men, Emmanuel Macron is certainly more than sensitive to the love of glory. Or, as we say today, since the term “glory” is largely discredited because of its “aristocratic” connotations, Emmanuel Macron is certainly concerned about “the mark he will leave on history”. The question is, then: on what does he believe that “history” will judge him?

Since his appearance on the front of the political stage in 2017, Emmanuel Macron has done everything possible to ensure that French political life is reduced to a duel between “the forces of progress”, led by him, of course, and “the extremes” and especially the far right, whose essential component is the Rassemblement National, Marine le Pen’s party. 

The calculation was as transparent as it was cynical: for him, the Rassemblement National was the easiest adversary to defeat, given that the party was anathema to just about every elite in France and to a large part of the electorate itself. 

In 2017 and 2022, the presidential election thus became a duel between Le Pen and Macron, both of which Macron won without any difficulty.

However, by making the Rassemblement National his preferred adversary, Emmanuel Macron has also agreed to allow himself to be defined by this opposition. If political life is a struggle between the shadow of “extremism” and the light of “progress”, embodied by him, he cannot avoid being judged on the way he has managed to roll back “extremism”. Now, even though Emmanuel Macron has twice soundly defeated Marine le Pen, the latter’s party continues to make progress, election after election, and the dikes that prevented it from rising to power are clearly breaking down. The Rassemblement National is now by far the leading political party in France.

Emmanuel Macron is therefore faced with the prospect, a very distressing one for him, of seeing Marine le Pen succeed him as President of the Republic. Apart from the very personal inconvenience of having to welcome this woman whom he openly despises on the steps of the Elysée Palace and entrust her with care of the State, this would mean that his two terms in office have been, fundamentally, failures. Emmanuel Macron would go down in the annals of infamy as the man who allowed “extremism” to take root at the head of France. If anything sometimes keeps Emmanuel Macron awake at night, it’s probably this. 

The fact that the Rassemblement National scored more than twice as much as Renaissance on Sunday in no way obliged the President to draw radical institutional conclusions from it. Elections to the European Parliament are, by definition, elections to the European Parliament. At the end of these elections, Emmanuel Macron still had the same relative majority in the National Assembly, which had enabled him to appoint the Prime Minister for the past two years and to pursue, more or less, the policies of his choice. But Emmanuel Macron obviously understands the difference between the legal consequences of an election and its political consequences.

His party’s disastrous result on Sunday, after an election campaign in which Emmanuel Macron was personally and vigorously involved, is a personal failure for him. This personal failure means that his ability to persuade those he needs to persuade, an ability that was already weak before the election, has been further reduced. Contrary to a naive understanding of political power, even the President of the Republic has to persuade far more often than he can command. His ability to lead the country depends to a very large extent on his ability to constantly obtain the support, or at least the neutrality, of a multitude of players of all kinds. And this ability depends to a very large extent on his popularity or, to put it in more cynical terms, his ability to get the people of his choice elected.

Emmanuel Macron undoubtedly lacks some of the essential qualities that make great statesmen, but he is certainly not lacking in boldness

On Sunday, after the rout of his party, Emmanuel Macron saw the prospect of dying a slow death during the three years remaining to him at the head of state. In other words, his troops would gradually turn their backs on him, his room for manoeuvre would shrink day by day and he would pass, despite himself, from the status of republican monarch to that of lazy king. The dregs of this chalice would be Marine le Pen’s carnivorous smile during the dreaded handover of power.

Emmanuel Macron undoubtedly lacks some of the essential qualities that make great statesmen, but he is certainly not lacking in boldness. His burst onto the political scene and then his election in 2017 were the result of a remarkable stroke of daring, combined with a great intelligence of the political situation at the time. On Sunday evening, Emmanuel Macron decided to go all the way rather than allow himself to be trapped in a situation that he considers unacceptable.

This decision is all the more risky in that it already amounts to granting two major victories to the Rassemblement National. On the one hand, Marine le Pen’s party had been calling for this dissolution for months. Secondly, by drawing such radical national consequences from the European election, Emmanuel Macron is implicitly acknowledging that this election was not really European, but national. He, the convinced Europeanist, admits that there are no European elections as such, but simply national elections on European issues. In other words, he recognises that the framework of our political life is the nation and not ‘Europe’. This is tantamount to validating the Rassemblement National’s analysis. Very tellingly, the Rassemblement National’s campaign slogan was ‘La France revient’ (France is coming back), while Renaissance’s was ‘Besoin d’Europe’ (We need Europe). 

On Sunday evening, by declaring the dissolution of the National Assembly, Emmanuel Macron conceded therefore a double defeat to the “far right”: a tactical defeat and an ideological defeat. 

What can he hope to achieve with this latest astonishing stroke of audacity? 

It seems to me that the elections in three weeks’ time could lead to three different outcomes.

Emmanuel Macron can hope that the prospect of the Rassemblement National winning a majority of MPs in the National Assembly will force what remains of the “moderate” right and left to openly ally with his own party, to prevent the hated “far right” from forming the next government. To date, Emmanuel Macron has never been able to secure such a rally, or make these parties disappear, even though he has captured a good proportion of their cadres and electorate. If he succeeded this time, he could hope to build a majority in the Assembly that would allow him to continue to run the country as he sees fit and raise the shaky bulwarks against “extremism”.

France would once again become almost as ungovernable as it was under the 4th Republic

The second possibility is that this rally does not take place, or that it does not have the desired effect, and that the Rassemblement National obtains a majority of MPs. We would then enter a period known as “cohabitation”, where the President of the Republic has to appoint as Prime Minister someone who does not belong to his political camp. This situation has already arisen three times since 1986. Experience has shown that cohabitation is, on the whole, a situation that is favourable to the President of the Republic and unfavourable to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is effectively in charge of the day-to-day running of the country, while the President can take a step back from these worries. But governing means disappointing and creating discontent. Especially governing a nation like France, which is so prone to quarrelling and division, and which today is so dissatisfied with itself and so anxious about its future. Emmanuel Macron can therefore hope that a situation of cohabitation would quickly weaken the Rassemblement National and cause its defeat in the next presidential election. 

Finally, the third possibility is that the forthcoming legislative elections fail to produce a majority. This is because the Rassemblement National would not succeed in obtaining a majority of seats on its own, because no other party would want to govern with it or even let it govern, and because the President’s party would emerge weakened and would not have succeeded in creating an alliance of “moderates”. 

At the moment, no one can reasonably predict which way the dice will fall. But if I were to venture a prediction, I would say that the third possibility seems the most likely. In that case, France would once again become almost as ungovernable as it was under the 4th Republic, when governments lasted an average of six months.

De Gaulle described this ill-conceived political system as follows: 

For twelve years, their system once again proved its worth. (…) Seventeen presidents of the council, making up twenty-four ministries, took it in turns to camp out at Matignon. (…) Whatever each of them was able to achieve, the country and the world witnessed the scandalous spectacle of ‘governments’ formed by dint of compromise, defeated on all sides as soon as they were brought together, shaken from within by discord and dissent, soon overthrown by a vote which more often than not expressed nothing more than the impatient appetite of candidates for offices, and leaving in the meantime vacancies lasting up to several weeks.

This is the “scandalous spectacle” that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic had put an end to, and that Emmanuel Macron’s reckless decision may well resurrect, with unpredictable consequences that could only be very bad. Perhaps it says something about his desperation that he would rather take the risk of breaking our institutions than let Marine le Pen succeed him.

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