Macron’s Early Election Call After EU Vote Is a Huge Gamble

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On the face of it, there is little logic in calling an election from a position of great weakness. But that is what President Emmanuel Macron has done by calling a snap parliamentary election in France on the back of a humiliation by the far right.

After the National Rally of Marine Le Pen and her popular protégé Jordan Bardella handed him a crushing defeat on Sunday in elections for the European Parliament, Mr. Macron might have done nothing, reshuffled his government, or simply altered course through stricter controls on immigration and by renouncing contested plans to tighten rules on unemployment benefits.

Instead, Mr. Macron, who became president at 39 in 2017 by being a risk taker, chose to gamble that France, having voted one way on Sunday, will vote another in a few weeks.

“I am astonished, like almost everyone else,” said Alain Duhamel, the prominent author of “Emmanuel the Bold,” a book about Mr. Macron. “It’s not madness, it’s not despair, but it is a huge risk from an impetuous man who prefers taking the initiative to being subjected to events.”

Shock coursed through France on Monday. The stock market plunged. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, a city that will host the Olympic Games in just over six weeks, said she was “stunned” by an “unsettling” decision. “A thunderbolt,” thundered Le Parisien, a daily newspaper, across its front page.

For Le Monde, it was “a jump in the void.” Raphaël Glucksmann, who guided the revived center-left socialists to third place among French parties in the European vote, accused Mr. Macron of “a dangerous game.”

France is always a mystery, its perennial discontent and restiveness at odds with its prosperity and beauty, but this was a surprise of unusual proportions. Mr. Macron, after a stinging defeat in which the National Rally won 31.37 percent of the vote to 14.6 percent for the coalition led by his Renaissance party, has in effect called his country’s bluff, asking if its apparent readiness for the extreme right in power is real or a mere letting-off of steam.

The risk is that about a month from now Mr. Macron would have to govern with Mr. Bardella, 28, who represents everything he abhors, as his prime minister. If the nationalist, anti-immigrant National Rally wins an absolute majority in the 577-member National Assembly, an unlikely scenario, or merely emerges as by far the strongest party, which is more plausible, Mr. Macron may be obliged to swallow hard and do that.

Ms. Le Pen, with her eye on winning the presidency in 2027, would almost certainly defer to Mr. Bardella, who led the party’s European election campaign, for the post of prime minister.

France would then be confronted with the consecration through high political office of the extreme right, an idea held unthinkable ever since the Vichy government ruled France in collaboration with the Nazis between 1940 and 1944.

Why play with fire in this way? “It’s not the same election, not the same form of ballot, and not the same stakes,” said Jean-Philippe Derosier, a professor of public law at the University of Lille. “Macron apparently feels it’s the least bad choice to have a possible National Rally prime minister under his control, rather than a Le Pen victory in 2027.”

In other words, Mr. Macron, who is term limited and will leave office in 2027, may be flirting with the notion that three years in office for the National Rally — turning it from a party of protest to a party with the onerous responsibilities of government — would stall its inexorable rise.

It is one thing to rail from the margins, quite another to run a heavily indebted and polarized country so angry over the level of immigration, crime and living costs that many French people seem driven by a sentiment that “enough is enough.”

As in other Western societies, including the United States, a widespread feeling of alienation, even invisibility, among people outside the wired cities of the knowledge economy has led to a broad feeling that the prevailing system needs blowing up.

Ms. Le Pen on Sunday announced the end of “the painful globalist parenthesis that has made so many people suffer in the world.” Given that mainstream pro-European parties won about 60 percent of the vote in the European Parliament election, despite the far-right surge, that appeared to be a bold prediction.

A “cohabitation,” as the French call it, between a president from one party and a prime minister from another, is not unknown — most recently, Jacques Chirac, a center-right Gaullist, governed with a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, between 1997 and 2002. France survived and Mr. Chirac was re-elected.

But never before has there been such an ideological gulf, going to the very conception of French values and the core importance of the European Union for the continent’s liberty, as there would be between Mr. Macron and a National Rally prime minister.

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