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France at crossroads: Macron's gamble with snap polls amid far-right surge

As Macron calls for early legislative elections, France faces a pivotal moment with the far-right poised for unprecedented gains, challenging the nation's political future and EU relationships

Emmanuel Macron, France, French president

Emmanuel Macron

Rimjhim Singh New Delhi
France will conduct two rounds of polling on June 30 and July 7, 2024 to elect a new National Assembly. This election marks the first time in 22 years where there is a significant chance that the President and the Prime Minister, who leads the National Assembly, may not belong to the same political party.

Macron announces snap elections after far-right’s European election win

On June 9, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and called for new parliamentary elections following the far-right’s landslide victory in the European elections.

After the far-right National Rally scored 31.4 per cent of the vote to his party’s 14.6 per cent, Macron said it was time for France’s people and politicians “who do not recognise themselves in the extremist fever” to build a new coalition.

As the National Assembly elections were last held in June 2022, no further vote was due until 2027. However, President Macron said that the decision to call the elections now is the “most responsible solution”.

Structure and significance of the French parliament

The French parliament comprises two chambers: the Senate as the upper house and the National Assembly as the lower house. The upcoming elections will determine legislators for all 577 seats in the National Assembly, including 13 overseas districts and 11 constituencies representing French expatriates.

A party needs 289 seats to achieve an absolute majority. The elections are conducted in two rounds: the first, on June 30, serves to eliminate candidates failing to secure at least 12.5 per cent of locally registered votes. In some constituencies, any candidate securing 50 per cent of the vote and a minimum 25 per cent local electoral turnout wins outright.

The second round, set for July 7, will feature head-to-head contests among two to four candidates, often revealing strategic alliances.

Reacting to President Macron’s decision to hold elections three years ahead of schedule, Celia Belin, head of the Paris office for the European Council on Foreign Relations said, “What happened last night was a political earthquake. Snap elections are not common at all... and usually are actually lost by the president who calls for these elections.”

Key dates, procedures for the upcoming elections in France

The elections are held in two rounds. The first round, on June 30, eliminates candidates who do not receive at least 12.5 per cent of the locally registered votes. In some constituencies, a candidate wins outright by securing 50 per cent of the vote with a minimum 25 per cent local electoral turnout. The second round, scheduled for July 7, features head-to-head contests among two to four candidates, often revealing strategic alliances.

The candidates had until June 16 to register for the 577 seats in the National Assembly. The campaigning for the snap elections kicked off a day later, on June 17.

France’s semi-presidential system: Role of the President and Prime Minister

France is a semi-presidential, representative parliamentary democracy, with distinct roles for the President and the Prime Minister. The current political system, known as the Fifth Republic, was established in 1958, replacing the previous parliamentary republic.

From 1946 to 1958, France was under the Fourth Republic, a parliamentary system where power was primarily held by the lower house of Parliament. Without an absolute majority, coalition governments frequently shifted, leading to 16 prime ministers and 24 Cabinets in just 12 years.

The 1958 Constitution that created the Fifth Republic strengthened executive power. Since 1962, the President of France has been directly elected by popular vote, while the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party or coalition in the National Assembly.

Major parties and key players in the upcoming French elections

Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party holds the largest bloc in parliament with just over 170 MPs. Positioned as centrist, pro-European, and pro-business, its popularity, along with the president’s, has waned following several unpopular reforms, reflecting current polling figures at 19 per cent.

National Rally (RN), the leading opposition party, remains fundamentally populist, nationalist, and far-right, advocating for policies like ‘national preference’ for French citizens and substantial unfunded spending. It currently polls at 33 per cent.

Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) is a prospective alliance between leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed (LFI), the Socialists (PS), Communists, and Greens (EELV). While internal disagreements exist, they have agreed to field a single candidate per constituency. If they can maintain unity, polls suggest they could secure up to 30 per cent of the vote.

Les Républicains, the centre-right party, currently holds 68 MPs. However, it is experiencing internal turmoil following President of the Republicans Éric Ciotti’s proposal to form an electoral pact with RN, a move opposed by much of the party. The Les Républicains’s polling stands at 7 per cent.

Public reaction and protests following Macron’s snap election announcement

Across France, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets after President Emmanuel Macron called for snap elections in the wake of his party’s defeat at the hands of the far right in the recent European Parliament vote, Al Jazeera reported.

The demonstrations are against both the hard right and Macron’s decision.

In Paris, at Place de la Republique on June 15, people climbed the Marianne statue before following the familiar route from Republique to Nation.

France’s newest wave of rallies was sparked by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party winning 31.4 per cent of the vote, led by Jordan Bardella. The coalition under Macron’s Renaissance party won just 14.6 per cent.

Key issues, debates dominating the election campaign in France

The leaders of France’s three largest political groups clashed in their first televised debate, discussing topics ranging from retirement and taxes to immigration, as they aimed to gain voters’ trust to govern Europe’s second-largest economy, Bloomberg reported.

With just days remaining before the first round of the legislative vote, centrist Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, Jordan Bardella of the far-right National Rally, and Manuel Bompard from the New Popular Front leftist alliance presented their strategies for addressing the country’s purchasing power issues, enhancing public services, and improving the environment.

The debate was marked by frequent attacks and interruptions as the three leaders emphasized their differences. Attal defended his government’s record, Bardella highlighted his party’s strict stance on immigration, crime, and security, while Bompard advocated for the left’s plan to lower the retirement age and increase taxes on the wealthy, Bloomberg reported.

Potential outcomes and the future of French politics

The two-round electoral process complicates confident seat number estimations. Experts predict that RN could nearly triple its number of deputies, though it will likely fall short of an outright majority. Meanwhile, Renaissance’s total may be cut in half.

Such an outcome would leave President Macron with three years of navigating an even more divided Parliament, having challenging negotiations with opposition parties to form a government and pass legislation, likely resulting in a legislative deadlock.

All opinion polls project a slim chance of victory for President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal-centrist Renaissance Party-led Ensemble coalition, which trails both the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen and the left-wing New Popular Front headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

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First Published: Jun 27 2024 | 4:19 PM IST

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