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Jun 14, 2024

Macron’s Waterloo?

For France, the French president’s snap elections gamble is risky. From a European perspective, running that risk now is irresponsible.

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“Are you crazy?” a journalist asked the French president straight-up in an interview after Sunday’s shock announcement that snap parliamentary elections were to take place within three weeks. His party, Renaissance, had just lost big to the far-right Rassemblement National (RN). This is where we are in the summer of 2024 in France.

It feels like President Emmanuel Macron has created his own Waterloo moment. A beleaguered French statesman tries to go on the offensive by rushing into a grand showdown. A man who has won so many “unwinable” battles believes he can once more outsmart everyone and leverage his charisma and power of conviction to rally the troops behind him and emerge victorious.

But as in 1815, it’s all been done too hastily. Macron has taken the entire country by surprise, including his own closest allies. His prime minister, Gabriel Attal, says his job now in the election campaign is to do everything to “avoid the worst.” And as the battle has commenced, things have started to go wrong.

Back in 1815, Napoléon thought he had forced Prussian General von Blücher to retreat in an earlier battle. But von Blücher showed up at Waterloo in force. Today, the formerly bitterly-divided left managed to form an electoral alliance, a so-called New Popular Front. Unthinkable only days ago, even former President François Hollande of the center-left Parti Socialiste has given his blessing to the deal with his archenemy, the far-left France Insoumise.

At Waterloo, in the middle of the battle Napoléon then suddenly banked on his Marshal Grouchy joining his troops, but it was too late, and Grouchy never showed up. Today, there is still no sign that the center-right Les Républicains (LR) are willing to team up with Macron and join his party against RN.

First polls show that RN would end up on top, followed by the New Popular Front. Macron’s Renaissance party would come third. That would suggest another hung parliament, but this time with Renaissance no longer being the biggest party. Or post-war France could even end up seeing its first far-right government by mid-July. Or the New Popular Front could suddenly surge to the first place. The two-round legislative elections are hard to forecast.

Too Proud

Perhaps the election can still take on a different dynamic. Perhaps, with financial markets in alarm, the French will still be scared enough to vote Renaissance. Perhaps Macron still has an ace up his sleeve that would allow him to tear apart the left-wing alliance or close a deal with LR.

If not, historians will endlessly discuss why the president took the gamble. Some argue that like Bonaparte, Macron had no choice. Indeed, the opposition LR could have toppled Prime Minister Attal over the budget in the fall. But considering the divisions within the LR that are now blowing wide-open, with the party leader being dumped after he called for an alliance with the far right, this was far from certain, either.

The truth is that Macron’s gamble fits with his general modus operandi that privileges action over patience, courage over fear. Asked in an interview with German magazine DER SPIEGEL in 2017 why he never dared to publish one of his novels, Macron said: “In politics, dissatisfaction is tackled—or at least confronted—with action. As long as you are not happy, you stay mobile and keep going. In literature, however, you have to put a full stop one day and let others read what you have written. I find that difficult. Probably I am too proud.”

A revealing quote. The restless and proud Macron cannot accept defeat. He needs a rematch of the botched European election.

And why shouldn’t it work? Hasn’t doing what others think is impossible served him well? Doesn’t he have this extraordinary capacity to convince others if it need be? In the magical moment of his first term, Macron managed to single-handedly calm down the Yellow Vest movement by organizing the Grand Débat and touring the country listening to and confronting the French.

Yet, after seven years in power, the French know Macron’s tricks. There might be too much “history” between him and the French for them to give him the benefit of the doubt once more.

Betrayal

Moreover, the biggest problem of Macron’s snap election call is that he has disgruntled the voter segment of the “reluctant Macronists” that helped him win in the past.

Macron won 28 percent in the first round of the 2022 presidential elections. Mobilizing these voters again would guarantee him a very good result in the first round of the legislative elections on June 30. But the problem is: A part of these 28 percent did not vote for him because they liked his agenda. They thought that Macron might be imperfect, but at least he keeps the house in order and was the best shot at making sure the far right stays out of power.

It is these voters that feel betrayed by Macron’s snap election call, as it turns out that it is Macron himself who is creating the chaos and giving RN an opportunity to get into power early. And what to think of a fireman that has just lit a match, then warns about it turning into a fire hoping that you call upon him to extinguish it again? 

Or may Macron be playing four-dimensional chess? The seasoned economist Olivier Blanchard argues argues that Macron is willing to countenance a far-right prime minister—Jordan Bardella—as this would at least make a victory of Marine Le Pen in the 2027 presidential elections more unlikely. But there are two big problems with this view. 

First, how can we know that a Prime Minister Bardella would have the half-life of a cabbage? To say RN’s program is fiscally irresponsible is an understatement. Yet Bardella is already walking back from costly campaign promises, such as undoing Macron’s pension reform that increased the retirement age to 64. Bardella might turn out to be another Liz Truss, but it could also be that the RN holds off on its more radical policies and tries to avoid a stand-off with the financial markets until after the presidential elections in 2027.

Second, it may be true that France will have a RN president or prime minister sooner or later. But now is not the time. If Macron truly thinks Russia’s war against Ukraine is an “existential battle” for Europe, then keeping Paris firmly in the pro-Kyiv camp for the next three years is an imperative, even if that had meant blockage at home.

What About Europe?

Yes, foreign policy is the president’s domaine reservé. But a Prime Minister Bardella or a hung parliament in which the far right and the far left, RN and FI and Russophile LR MPs, together have a majority of seats could influence major foreign policy decisions.

Parliament could probably block financing for new arms commitments. Would Macron be in a position to approve rolling over EU sanctions on Russia or opening EU accession negotiations with Kyiv, if the Assemblée Nationale took a different view? Parliament has to approve the sending of troops abroad if their mission lasts for more than four months.

And with a paralyzed France, how is Europe going to organize Ukraine’s defense if Donald Trump is elected US president in November? How is Berlin to be convinced to agree to EU debt to build up Europe’s defense industry if RN is the biggest party in the Assemblée?

Bardella has remained vague on Ukraine policy, but Le Pen argued in 2014 that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was legal. In August 2022, she still demanded the lifting of sanctions against Moscow. MPs from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s FI chose not to attend when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke in the French parliament last week.

For France, Macron’s snap elections gamble is risky. From a European perspective, running that risk now is irresponsible.

We started with Napoléon, and so we shall finish. In exile on the island of St Helena, Napoléon wrote: “The destiny of France depended entirely on the character, the actions, and the conscience of the man on whom it had conferred this accidental dictatorship. From that day on ... the state was me. …  I was, myself, the keystone of a new edifice built on such fragile foundations! Its survival depended on each one of my battles.”

The battle of Waterloo took place on June 15, 1815. The first round of the French legislative elections is on June 30, 2024.

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.

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