Le Pen's Far-Right Party Leads First Round as Macron's Snap Election Gamble Backfires

Le Pen's Far-Right Party Leads First Round as Macron's Snap Election Gamble Backfires

Felix Yim 01/07/2024
Le Pen's Far-Right Party Leads First Round as Macron's Snap Election Gamble Backfires

In a dramatic turn of events, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party has taken the lead in the first round of voting in France’s high-stakes elections, positioning itself to potentially control the government for the first time since World War II.

President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling coalition was relegated to third place, trailing behind a newly-formed left-wing alliance, as his risky snap election move backfired spectacularly.

Addressing her jubilant supporters in her northern constituency, where she secured an outright victory in the first round, Le Pen urged voters to give her party an “absolute majority” in the National Assembly. If successful, this would force Macron to appoint the National Rally's 28-year-old Jordan Bardella as prime minister in an awkward power-sharing arrangement known as “cohabitation,” significantly weakening Macron’s influence both domestically and internationally.

A victory for Le Pen's party would mark the first time a far-right government has held power in France since the Vichy regime during World War II. This would signify an extraordinary turnaround for an extremist party co-founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a known Vichy supporter and convicted anti-Semite. However, a more probable scenario might be a hung parliament, leading to political gridlock in the European Union’s second-largest economy and its leading military power.

The elections followed a chaotic three-week campaign—the shortest in modern French history. Macron had warned voters of the potential for “civil war” should they choose either of his main rivals. Voter turnout was estimated at over 65%, the highest for a parliamentary vote since former president Jacques Chirac’s snap election in 1997, which also ended disastrously.

Macron’s decision to dissolve the lower house came after European parliamentary elections where Le Pen’s National Rally outperformed the ruling party. The president’s bold move was made against the advice of senior allies, including the heads of France’s two parliamentary chambers and his prime minister, who were informed of his decision only at the last moment. The abrupt call presented local officials with a logistical nightmare, coinciding with the start of school summer holidays and the upcoming Paris Olympics. Gérard Larcher, the conservative head of the Senate, accused Macron of undermining democracy.

Even Le Pen expressed surprise at the advantage handed to her by the Élysée Palace, stating, “When your opponent is riding a wave of support, the last thing you do is encourage that wave.” She compared the momentum from her party’s victory in the European elections to that typically enjoyed by a newly elected president, when voters often grant the incoming head of state a parliamentary majority to govern.

Macron had aimed to frame the elections as a final battle between his “progressive” camp and rival “populist” forces. This strategy had worked in the past, with voters rallying behind him to defeat Le Pen in presidential runoffs in 2017 and 2022. However, instead of favoring him, the "clarification" he sought by dissolving the National Assembly rekindled the left-right divide he had hoped to extinguish.

The sudden possibility of a far-right government succeeded in reuniting France’s fragmented left with unexpected speed, catching the Élysée Palace off guard. Simultaneously, the rapid campaign allowed Le Pen’s party to accelerate its takeover of France’s right-wing electorate, facilitated by the collapse of rival parties. Behind the scenes, arch-conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré, dubbed the “French Murdoch,” leveraged his extensive media empire to support France’s nationalist right.

Macron underestimated the extent of his dwindling political capital after seven years in office and multiple crises. Last year’s contentious pension reform battle, during which Macron used special powers to bypass parliament amid fierce nationwide opposition, damaged his democratic credentials in the eyes of many voters. A controversial immigration law passed with support from Le Pen's lawmakers further alienated left-wing supporters. This latest gamble proved to be the final straw for many voters who had previously supported Macron to prevent Le Pen from gaining power.

Macron’s allies had urged him to adopt a low profile during the campaign. Many candidates preferred not to feature his photo on their campaign posters, opting instead for his more popular prime minister. Ignoring their advice, Macron made repeated campaign appearances and once again promised to “change the way we govern” in a letter to French voters. His depiction of the election as a struggle between his moderate camp and “extremists” on both ends of the spectrum ultimately failed to persuade voters, leaving his bloc as the weakest of three factions now vying to govern France.

How Macron’s weakened bloc positions itself in the coming days will likely determine the outcome of the July 7 vote. Left-wing leaders, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the hard-left La France Insoumise (LFI), announced they would withdraw all third-placed candidates to avoid splitting the anti-Le Pen vote. This move pressures the ruling camp to reciprocate for left-wing candidates, mirroring how left-wing voters have repeatedly supported Macron against the far right.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who is expected to lose his position, stated that the ruling Renaissance party would also withdraw third-placed candidates, but only in constituencies where the remaining opponent “shares our Republican values,” suggesting reluctance to support LFI candidates. “The priority is to ensure the far right does not win an absolute majority,” Attal emphasized. “Not one single vote must go to the National Rally.”

While Le Pen has made significant efforts to “normalize” her party, her anti-immigrant, Kremlin-friendly National Rally remains unpalatable to many French voters. Bardella, her choice for prime minister, has pledged to use his powers to halt Macron’s military aid to Ukraine. The National Rally has also questioned the right to citizenship for people born in France and promised to curtail the rights of dual-national citizens, drawing criticism for undermining human rights and democratic ideals.

The left-wing NFP, spanning from former president François Hollande to fringe anti-capitalist groups, has also alarmed voters with its expansive economic program and the radicalism of some candidates. Former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe explicitly advised his Macron-allied party candidates not to drop out of three-way races where LFI candidates represent the left. Aurore Bergé, the Minister for Family Affairs, went further, urging voters to “band together” against Mélenchon’s party.

Experts caution that many voters no longer heed party leaders' guidance, and some candidates may refuse to withdraw despite directives from Paris, making the outcome of the second round extraordinarily unpredictable. One thing is certain: Macron’s “clarification” has made it clear that French voters no longer want him to govern alone.

Since Macron’s audacious gamble, a quote from the late conservative minister Patrick Devedjian has been widely shared on social media. Referring to Chirac’s ill-fated snap election in 1997, the quote could just as easily apply to Macron’s current situation: “We were holed up in an apartment with a gas leak,” Devedjian quipped. "That’s when Chirac lit a match to see what was going on.”

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Felix Yim

Tech Expert

Felix is the founder of Society of Speed, an automotive journal covering the unique lifestyle of supercar owners. Alongside automotive journalism, Felix recently graduated from university with a finance degree and enjoys helping students and other young founders grow their projects. 

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