Sat. Jul 13th, 2024


France is on the cusp of voting in a far-right government for the first time since World War II, as the national mood appears to be souring on President Emmanuel Macron’s brand of mainstream centrism and lurching toward fiery anti-establishment populism. It’s a familiar story for anyone watching the political drama from the bitterly polarized U.S.

France’s anti-immigrant National Rally party is edging out the competition in opinion polls in the run-up to a two-round snap legislative vote on Sunday and July 7. Macron dissolved the French Parliament and called the snap election after his liberal Renaissance coalition was routed by the National Rally in European Parliament elections earlier this month.

Macron will remain president after the snap election, but the 46-year-old leader will need to select a prime minister from the ranks of whichever political group nabs a majority in the National Assembly, the French equivalent of the U.S. House. If the far right triumphs, Macron could enter the Paris Summer Olympics under a cloud of political embarrassment, humbled by a fraught power-sharing arrangement.

Here’s a guide to the snap election, the major players vying for victory, and what the results could portend for the U.S. as the nation looks ahead to November.

Macron will remain president after the snap election. Thibault Camus / AP

What led to this election?

Macron’s tenure in office has always been shadowed by the rise of the far right.

He was elected to the French presidency in 2017 and re-elected in 2022, both times defeating Marine Le Pen, the face of the National Rally and the daughter of the late Jean-Marie Le Pen, a fervent far-right politician who was notorious for his antisemitic and Islamophobic views. Macron won handily in 2017 on a conventional pro-business platform, but his margin of victory was tighter five years later.

In recent years, Le Pen and her party have rallied voters against Macron’s presidency and what she views as the sociopolitical ills of the West, including immigration, globalization and multiculturalism. Le Pen has advocated for stricter limits on immigration, economic protectionism, and closer ties between France and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The National Rally’s populist agitation now appears to be paying dividends. Le Pen’s party received double the votes of Macron’s centrists during European Parliament elections held from June 6 to June 9. Macron’s coalition was trounced so badly that he immediately called for snap elections in a risky bid to reassert his authority — and give voters a chance to declare which ideological path they want to follow.

“I have heard your message, your concerns, and I will not leave them unanswered,” Macron said in a speech to the nation after the vote to elect lawmakers to the European Union’s 720-seat Parliament. “France needs a clear majority to act in serenity and harmony.” He said he was “confident” voters would “make the right choice.”

Recent opinion polls measuring voting intention showed the National Rally with a commanding lead, followed by the leftist New Popular Front coalition. Macron’s liberal bloc trailed in third place.

The first round of voting will be held on Sunday. If a candidate wins a majority of votes in the first ballot, they win the seat. For the remaining candidates who did not win a decisive majority but polled highest, a run-off round will be held on July 7.

Marine Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, listen to a speech during the 15th congress of the far-right National Front in Lyon, France, in 2014.Jeff Pachoud / AFP via Getty Images file

Who are the major players in the election?

Le Pen may be synonymous with the National Rally, but she is not the far-right movement’s contender for prime minister in the snap elections. The National Rally’s figurehead in the race is Jordan Bardella, a clean-cut, media-savvy 28-year-old and loyal Le Pen protégé who joined the right-wing party as a teenager. (Le Pen is believed to be angling for the presidency in 2027.)

Bardella, who was elected party president in 2022, touts his working-class roots and reaches disaffected voters through TikTok, where he has 1.7 million followers. In crisp suits, Bardella rails against mass immigration and demographic change. (“No French citizen would tolerate living in a house without doors or windows,” he said on French television this month, appearing to advocate for tighter restrictions on immigration. “Well, it’s the same thing with a country.”)

“What he sells is that his party has never been given a try and that it is the only true alternative, all others being affiliated with the so-called ‘system,’ a word that has a similar meaning to Trump’s ‘swamp,’” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist who studies nationalist movements in Europe, referring to the former U.S. president’s characterization of entrenched interests in Washington.

Jordan Bardella prior to the start of a debate in Paris on June 27.Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP – Getty Images

Bardella’s counterpart in the centrist Renaissance coalition is 35-year-old Gabriel Attal, who has been dubbed “Baby Macron” by some in the French press. Macron appointed Attal to the prime ministership in January, making him the youngest and first openly gay person to serve in the role.

Attal, a former member of the Socialist Party, grew his national stature when he worked as government spokesperson during the Covid-19 pandemic. He rose in prominence as budget minister and education minister before ascending to the prime minister’s office, where he has tried to broaden the Renaissance movement’s appeal in a time of simmering dissatisfaction with Macron’s brand of middle-ground liberalism.

In recent opinion polls, however, Macron’s party has lagged behind both the National Rally and the New Popular Front, an alliance of leftist factions that includes socialists, communists and other groups. If the National Rally crushes the competition in the snap elections, Attal would lose the prime ministership.

The far-left coalition has not publicly announced the selection of a candidate for prime minister, though high-profile figures on that end of the ideological spectrum include Manuel Bompard of the hard-left France Unbowed party and the Socialist Party’s Raphaël Glucksmann.

Gabriel Attal addresses deputies at the National Assembly in Paris on June 5.Julie de Rosa / AFP – Getty Images

What would the results mean for the world?

If the far right prevails, Macron’s domestic agenda would almost certainly take a hit — and far-right nationalist movements around the world would likely feel emboldened. The European Parliament elections that proved so bruising for Macron were also rough on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose Social Democrats turned in their worst result ever thanks in part to the success of the hard-right Alternative for Germany.

The triumph of the National Rally could foreshadow good fortune for former President Donald Trump as he seeks to recapture the White House as the presumptive Republican nominee. Eight summers ago, the success of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom — fueled in part by anti-immigrant fervor — hinted at a similar political atmosphere in the U.S.; Trump, for his part, once called himself “Mr. Brexit.”

The rise of the National Rally could also imperil French support for Ukraine and derail Macron’s efforts to stand up to Russian aggression, according to Camus, who described the far-right party as isolationist. “It wants France to opt out of NATO military command and says it rules out sending missiles and troops to Ukraine,” which would “amount to betrayal of the West’s interests,” Camus said.

Camus said that the National Rally and Trump would probably “get along pretty well” if the presumptive Republican nominee wins another term. “It will be tougher for a Democratic administration,” he added.






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