A French ‘referendum’ on the far right: Will Macron’s risky gamble pay off?

The president is trying to push back against Le Pen’s party, but experts warn there is potential for strategy to backfire.

French President Emmanuel Macron
President Emmanuel Macron dissolved parliament on June 9, 2024, after the polls closed in France for the European Parliament elections [Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters]

President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call early parliamentary elections in response to his crushing defeat in a European Union vote is a risky gamble that few could have predicted, observers tell Al Jazeera, as they describe the snap polls as a referendum on the far right.

Yielding a call from the far-right candidate Jordan Bardella, whose National Rally party won 31.5 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections on Sunday, Macron dissolved the French Parliament and ordered snap elections.

The first round will be held on June 30 and a second on July 7.

Analysts said it is a high-stakes attempt to regain credibility after Macron’s liberal Renaissance party trailed behind National Rally in second place with about half its level of support – just 14.6 percent.

According to Gilles Ivaldi, professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po, Macron is hoping the votes of his detractors lack substance.

Voting for the National Rally and its firebrand leader Marine Le Pen has traditionally been a way to show dissatisfaction with the government.

“Now Macron is telling voters, ‘We’re playing for real,’” Ivaldi told Al Jazeera. “It’s not about expressing your discontent. It’s about whether you truly want the far right to be in charge.”

Ivaldi, who studies far-right and populist parties at Sciences Po’s Centre for Political Research, said Macron wants voters to think twice before casting a ballot for the National Rally when the far right has a real shot at power.

“He is hoping the fear of the far right will produce some important changes,” including rallying moderate parties to a new majority, he said.

But the move, unseen in French politics since 1997, has the potential to backfire.

The National Rally not only tapped into discontent with Macron’s government but also built support throughout the years around issues that matter to voters, including migration, security and the economy, Ivaldi said.

Le Pen has challenged Macron in the second round of the past two presidential elections, in 2017 and 2022. While Macron ultimately won both votes, his popularity declined while support for Le Pen grew from 34 to 41 percent.

Forecasts by Toluna Harris Interactive for Challenges, M6 and RTL predict the snap elections will result in the National Rally winning the most seats in the lower house of parliament but falling short of an absolute majority.

Macron has promised to finish out the remaining three years of his term as president regardless of any outcome. While he will oversee defence and foreign policy, he could lose control of the domestic agenda to the National Rally.

This “cohabitation” – as the situation is known in political jargon – would give Le Pen’s Russia-leaning, nationalist party the ability to set the tone on issues including the rights of non-French nationals, Ukraine aid and economic reforms.

“It is a gamble, clearly,” Ivaldi said. “No one saw this coming, and no one knows what will come out of the election.”

Rise of the far right

The far right’s triumphs in the European Parliament elections shook governments across the EU, but nowhere was the defeat more stinging than for the French head of state.

Macron’s liberal ruling coalition secured 13 out of the 81 seats allocated to France in the European legislative body. The National Rally bagged 30 seats.

The party’s popularity is not a novelty. From the mid-1980s, its voter base has been on the rise, and in the last two European elections, in 2014 and in 2019, it has topped the polls in France.

This year, however, the win came with an unprecedented margin.

Sebastien Maillard, associate fellow at Chatham House, said National Rally’s strategy to soften its image has been working.

“It used to be an anti-Semitic party, but now it is widely supporting Israel,” Maillard told Al Jazeera.

It also abandoned its hostility towards the NATO alliance and the idea of a Frexit – a French exit from the European Union. The party has also, for the most part, moved past the racist slurs that had characterised the leadership of founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.

Above all, Maillard said, the party’s “normalisation strategy” revolves around Bardella, a soft-spoken, 28-year-old political phenomenon who took over the leadership of the National Rally in 2022 to allow Le Pen to prepare for her next bid for the presidency.

With 1.2 million followers on TikTok, Bardella is attracting a younger crowd to the party.

He has successfully honed his image as the son of a poor family of Italian origin who grew up in the Paris suburbs but beat the odds and climbed to the top of the political ladder.

Marine Le Pen, President of the French far-right National Rally
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella led the National Rally’s campaign for the EU elections [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

While exuding humility and avoiding controversies, Bardella touts the party’s hardline anti-immigration message, which prioritises security and keeping “France for the French”.

If the National Rally wins a majority in parliament, he could be named prime minister.

According to some polls, he is among the politicians seen most favourably as a successor to Macron.

Le Pen has led the party’s rebrand, but the movement lacks “a clear programme”, Maillard said.

“This is what Macron’s snap election is about, forcing the National Rally to speak out on what they want so that the French can see how dangerous it is.”

Dissolving parliament was the “nuclear” option, he added, but perhaps a necessary move to contain festering discontent.

“The National Rally turned the EU election into a referendum on Macron. Now Macron is turning the snap election into a referendum on the far right.”

Source: Al Jazeera