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Macron’s snap election gamble could be a stroke of genius

In a move that would make a seasoned gambler blanch, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, has thrown the political dice by calling for snap parliamentary elections.

His audacious announcement on Sunday night came on the heels of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National or RN) securing 31.4 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections and trouncing Mr Macron’s centrist alliance, which scored just 14.6 per cent, less than half of his rival’s score.

The move to dissolve the National Assembly, which shocked even Mr Macron’s close associates, has left France’s political world wondering if this was a stroke of genius by a master tactician or an act of desperation by an unpopular president.

French voters will head to the polls over two rounds on 30 June and 7 July – just weeks before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Paris on 26 July.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, from the opposition Socialist Party (PS), said had “difficulty understanding” the move. “Like a lot of people I was stunned,” she said. Valérie Pécresse, a 2022 presidential contender with the centre-right Republicans (LR), said it was “like playing Russian roulette with the destiny of the country”.

What is clear from the European Parliament vote is that the French – rarely happy with their leaders – are even more tetchy than usual. Ms Le Pen has capitalised on a growing sense of unease about the cost of living, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the green transition and migration as she has hammered Mr Macron’s government.

“The mood in France is the aspect that worries me most,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences-Po University in Paris. “We can see from the data that there is anxiety, worry, pessimism, anger. And there is confusion – and the fog is becoming thicker and thicker for the French, who have a sense that they no longer understand what is happening.”

Mr Macron’s best hope is that the electorate, faced with the tangible possibility of far-right governance, will recoil and rally behind more moderate forces.

Mr Cautrès suggested that Mr Macron might try to build a common front with the centre-left and centre-right parties against Ms Le Pen and her lieutenant, Jordan Bardella, who led the party during the European election campaign.

But he could also be laying a trap for Ms Le Pen, by allowing them to win, take control of the government and then be found out when they fail to deliver the successes they promised. “He could be calling their bluff and saying, ‘It’s all very well being in opposition, but let’s see how you govern the country.’” Mr Cautrès said.

“And there is the idea of looking ahead to the 2027 presidential elections and saying that the only alternative to Marine Le Pen is a centrist politician who can rally people around them.”

Ms Le Pen has benefited from a fragmented opposition: the centre right is nearly non-existent, and the left is divided. Mr Macron’s centrist alliance, having lost its parliamentary majority in 2022, can only push through legislation using obscure and controversial constitutional tricks.

An informal alliance could halt her momentum. Yet, this is far from guaranteed. Parliamentary elections, unlike presidential ones, are contested across 577 constituencies, and the dynamics are vastly different. Mr Macron’s ability to frame the election as a stark binary choice between his centrism and Le Pen’s extremism is uncertain and the strategy is fraught with peril.

And if the RN does win the elections, France could face an unprecedented “cohabitation” with a far-right prime minister, likely resulting in legislative gridlock and political instability.

Nonetheless, Mr Macron can look to the example last year of Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, another political gambler who called early elections after his Socialist Party (PSOE) suffered heavy losses across regional and municipal elections – and yet closed the gap and pulled off a narrow victory.

“Macron’s move suicidal? Quite the opposite. It’s existential, and follows Pedro Sanchez’s script,” said Alberto Alemanno, an EU law professor at HEC Paris Business School, who said the president had his eye on his party’s survival after he leaves office. “The president had no choice but to acknowledge the fact that his own party had just witnessed a major loss. He had to seize the momentum to regain control of the story.”

Mr Macron’s star has waned considerably since his spectacular rise to the presidency in 2017, aged 39, having created a centrist, liberal political movement from scratch less than a year earlier. His allies still hail his courage and confidence, while critics say he reeks of hubris.

By turning the elections into a referendum on Ms Le Pen’s party, Mr Macron hopes to expose its flaws and dissuade voters from embracing its radical agenda. However, this strategy hinges on the assumption that the French public, when confronted with the reality of far-right governance, will choose the familiar over the unknown.

Mr Macron said the decision was a “serious and heavy” one, but he had faith “in the capacity of the French people to make the best choice for themselves and for future generations”. Whether his gamble will pay off or lead to further turmoil remains to be seen. But Mr Macron has bet the house on a very uncertain hand.

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