Battered by far right, France’s Macron bets big on risky snap election


BRUSSELS — Preparing to host the world for the Olympics, facing threats of terrorist attacks and a war of words with Russia, France is now also shaping up as an epic battleground in the West between the political center and the far right.

In European Parliament elections Sunday night, the far right surged in nations including Germany and Austria, but nowhere with more impact than in France. The far-right National Rally there clobbered the ruling centrist coalition, so much so that French President Emmanuel Macron called for snap legislative elections. His bet: That voters may be angry at him but are not truly prepared to allow the pick of Marine Le Pen — the fiery doyenne of French nationalist, euroskeptic, anti-immigration politics — to head a new French government.

It’s a bet that may exact a high price.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for a surprise early election, after far-right parties surged in the European Parliament elections on June 9. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Already, the uncertainty was reflected in the French stock market on Monday, while the mayor of Paris dubbed the dissolution of parliament ahead of the Olympics “extremely disturbing.”

The morning after the once-every-five-years European Parliament elections, populist and anti-immigrant parties across Europe were reflecting on a mixed night. Pro-European parties appeared to have won a majority of seats in the E.U.’s legislative body. And far-right parties lost ground in long illiberal Hungary, as well as in Poland.

But they celebrated their strong showing in the heart of Europe, claiming the largest share of seats in both France and Italy and placing second in Germany. That performance, combined with solid returns for center-right parties, translated into a rightward tilt for the European Union’s political establishment, five months before U.S. elections.

“I think the reason is not all that different from MAGA support in the United States,” said Jeromin Zettelmeyer, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. They see centrist politicians “as catering to urban voters, migrants and minorities.”

The losers? Green parties facing a backlash from voters tiring of the cost of combating climate change, and the political centrists in power at Europe’s core.

The election results underscored the extraordinary transformation of the European far right from groups once dismissed as skinheads and neo-Nazis to politically palatable figures who have connected with more and more voters.

The outcome especially undermined Macron, perhaps the region’s strongest advocate for accelerating support in Ukraine. Germany’s center-left chancellor, Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, faces the prospect of tangling with an empowered hard right on a host of issues, including whether to ease back on green policies.

The region’s most empowered leader now is the hard-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party posted massive gains over 2019 and bested even the 2022 numbers that brought her to power. Political support for her closest rival — her deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party — imploded, leaving Meloni as Italy’s strongest prime minister since her mentor, the playboy billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. Facing weakened centrists leaders in France and Germany, she could hold more sway in European debates over irregular migration and the role out of the region’s green deal to fight climate change.

“Her strength is increased by the weakness of others,” said Nicola Procaccini, a senior member of the European Parliament from Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.

The election’s most obvious winner was 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, the Le Pen protégé who led National Rally to a projected 31.5 percent of the vote, more than doubling the showing of the Macron coalition. If voters also decide to stick with the party in the French elections, now set for June 30 and July 7, Bardella could become prime minister.

“Jordan Bardella is our candidate” for prime minister, National Rally lawmaker Sébastien Chenu told French RTL radio.

Bardella, like Le Pen, is a nationalist and euroskeptic who takes a hard line on immigration. But like figures in other far-right parties in Portugal and Poland, Bardella — who has hosted political events at Paris nightclubs — has sought to reinvent what it means to be a politician by cultivating a fun, youthful and social media-forward image.

His soaring popularity, particularly among young people, has helped move Le Pen’s movement toward the political mainstream.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group consultancy, said Macron is trying to get ahead of the challenge by pushing “a stark choice” on the country: the status quo or a far-right prime minister. The French president may be hoping that his same warnings will mobilize more voters in a national election and that structural differences in the election — higher turnout, two rounds of voting — will play to his advantage.

Le Pen’s bar is high. To force Macron to name Bardella, her party would need to go from its current 88 seats to a majority, either alone or with a coalition, of the 577-member National Assembly. But even if she falls short, an increased presence for her party could cause further political paralysis and stymie Macron’s agenda.

“Is that a shrewd calculation or a mad gamble? It’s probably a bit of both,” Rahman said. Even if Macron averts a worst-case scenario but Le Pen makes big gains, he could be left with a “more ungovernable mess,” and “that’s still a major storm” he would have to contend with.

The possibility of Le Pen looming over France — not only this summer, but until the 2027 presidential race — could fuel skepticism about Macron’s pledges at the European level, such as support for Ukraine and boosting the E.U. budget.

“I think Le Pen has been having that pervasive influence on the credibility of commitments Macron’s been announcing for quite some time. And now we’re going to see that manifest in a more explicit way,” Rahman said.

The first round of voting on June 30 will take place just three days after a meeting of the European Council, when E.U. leaders will shape the mandate for the years ahead. Less than two weeks after the second round of voting, on July 7, European leaders are set to meet in London to discuss aid to Ukraine. And on July 26, the Paris Olympics begin, with all eyes on the French capital.

“It’s a bit strange that France is entering a phase of political paralysis — when there is an election, no decisions can be taken — at a time when there are so many major international deadlines,” said Michel Duclos, an expert at the Institut Montaigne think tank and a former French diplomat.

Macron’s success or failure will depend in part on his party’s ability to mobilize voters with arguments about the nationalist threat and the survival of Europe — arguments that failed to cut through in Sunday’s elections.

Ukraine may be a more effective line of argument. Allegations of improper ties to Moscow have hung over the National Rally and its officials for years and likely contributed to Marine Le Pen’s loss in the second round of the 2022 presidential election.

In a memorable moment of that campaign, Macron told Le Pen in a televised debate: “You are speaking to your banker when you speak about Russia” — a reference to roughly $10 million loan that her party, formerly called the National Front, received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank that has since shut down. Bardella has tried to move past this, and his party announced that it had repaid the loan in full last year, but voters may seek clarity on his position.

While Bardella has condemned Russia’s invasion, he has also said he does not see Russia as the enemy. Members of the European Parliament known for their close relations with Moscow such as Thierry Mariani were still on National Rally’s list.

In Germany, the far right took second place despite a series of recent scandals. Ahead of the vote, the AfD’s lead candidate, Maximilian Krah, was banned from campaigning after suggesting that not all of Nazi Germany’s SS officers should be considered criminals. The Greens, who hold key government portfolios including the foreign ministry and economy and energy ministry, lost more than eight percentage points compared to the 2019 European elections.

“I think when it comes to things like climate, the issue is not so much that voters are no longer worried about climate change, but they’re worried about who’s going to pay for climate change in this cost-of-living-focused environment,” Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Faiola reported from Rome and Timsit from Paris. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.

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