Source: CNN

It was a stinging blow and a shocking parry.

French President Emmanuel Macron saw his party fall into second place in European Parliament elections in France on Sunday, with the two main far-right parties together taking close to 40% of the vote.

When Jordan Bardella, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, called on Macron to dissolve the French national parliament on Sunday night, it seemed like political posturing, riding high on his victory in European polls.

“The President of the Republic cannot remain deaf to the message sent by the French this evening,” he told supporters.

Macron called his bluff.

Announcing a snap national election for the end of June, Macron has set up a showdown between his pro-European, centrist and pro-Ukrainian ideals and the anti-immigration, populist and hard-line law-and-order rhetoric of the far right.

“The extreme right is both the impoverishment of the French and the downgrading of our country. So, at the end of this day, I cannot act as if nothing had happened,” he told the country in a televised address Sunday.

Calling the far right’s bluff

Macron will try to rally the right and left, urging their supporters to come together and vote against the far right, but there’s no knowing if it’ll pay off.

The first round of voting will take place in 20 days, a tiny window in which to form a coalition from the mosaic of France’s centrist and left-wing parties.

There appears to be little appetite to join forces with Macron on the left, bruised after years of largely fruitless protests against his pro-business agenda, and torn apart from the inside by divisions over the war in Gaza.

The last time a French president dissolved the country’s lower house, the National Assembly, was in 1997. Jacques Chirac lost his majority, and the left came to power.

In an interview Monday morning, French Foreign Minister Stephane Séjourné said that Macron’s Renaissance party was open to withholding candidates from contesting the seats of potential allies in other parties.

Séjourné told Radio France that the party would discuss such a move with “reasonable people with whom we can work.”

On Sunday night, the popular French far-left party France Unbowed (LFI) appeared to have already ruled itself out of such a move.

“It is now clear that the country wants to turn the page on the Macron era. And this page must not be turned with the National Rally and the far right,” Manon Aubry, leader of the LFI European list, which came fourth in the European vote in France, told supporters.

LFI figurehead Jean-Luc Mélenchon said that he saw no reason to unite with other parties on the left, especially with the narrow window to form a coalition.

Such a proposition by Macron’s party is no doubt a sign of weakness, a far cry from Macron’s 2017 landslide second-round victory over far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen – and a sign of the times, his party wounded by memories of the “yellow vest” protests, an unyielding Covid-19 regime, and unpopular pension reforms.

Since parliamentary elections held at the beginning of his second term in 2022, Macron has been ruling without an absolute majority in parliament, ordinarily unable to pass bills with his lawmakers alone.

Instead, he invoked article 49.3 of the constitution several times to push legislation through parliament without a vote.

This has stoked yet more anger against Macron and further division in France, especially given the contentious nature of his hike in the pension age to 64.

Dueling visions

The far-right National Rally, spearheaded by Le Pen, the long-time doyenne of France’s anti-immigration camp, currently holds 88 to Macron’s bloc’s 250 seats in the 577-seat French parliament and, in theory, the upcoming election is far from a two-horse race.

The appeal of the far-right’s anti-immigration stance is no doubt magnified on the European stage – where EU lawmakers have long struggled to stem illegal immigration flows.

At a national level, Bardella and Le Pen will have to rely on a broader spectrum of policies, doing battle with Macron’s economic record, which has mostly shielded France from the inflation woes suffered by Europe.

However, it’s clear that this election will be a duel between Macron and Le Pen.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire admitted Monday morning that his party held some responsibility for Sunday’s results. He made his objective for the campaign clear.

“This will be project against project; National Rally against ours,” he told French radio network RTL.

The French foreign minister described the call for elections as a “bet of confidence” in the French people by Macron, with the president trusting they will hold the line against political extremes.

France’s voting system plays in Macron’s favor.

In the first round of ballots, a variety of parties will compete to meet a minimum threshold of votes.

The second round on July 7 will see the highest-polling candidates in each seat run off if no one wins an absolute majority. This could see voters of different stripes banding together to oppose a candidate from the far right.

This mechanism also applies to the presidential election, which has ensured no far-right victory at the Elysee Palace thus far.

On a more local scale, it may not be such a security.

Ultimately, the June 30 and July 7 votes will determine how Macron spends his last three years in power.

What comes next?

What’s certain is that Macron – with a presidential mandate until 2027 - will remain president no matter what.

If his gamble pays off and he wins back a majority in parliament, he’ll be able to move ahead with reforms and govern as he likes: changes to end-of-life care and the education system are in his crosshairs. It’ll give him precious breathing space and a clear mandate for his agenda at home and abroad. In his words, “It’s a time of indispensable clarification.”

“The rise of nationalists and demagogues is a danger not only for our nation, but also for our Europe and for France’s place in Europe and the world,” Macron said Sunday in his address to the nation.

But the prospect of a lame-duck presidency looms large.

If his bloc, currently with 250 of the 577 MPs in the National Assembly, fails to meet the 289-seat threshold for an absolute majority but remains the largest, his government will again have to wage legislative battle with one hand tied behind its back.

If his nightmare comes true and the far-right movement replicates its European results on the national stage, he will be forced to appoint a prime minister from its ranks – most likely the 28-year-old Bardella, current president of National Rally.

In a “cohabitation,” Macron would deal with international and defense issues, while Bardella would hold sway over the domestic agenda.

Party figurehead Le Pen would likely wait in the wings to contest the 2027 president election against Macron’s successor. The constitution prevents him running for a third term.

“We are ready to be in power,” she said in her Sunday night victory speech.

In a country increasingly polarized by populist rhetoric, Yaël Braun-Pivet, speaker of France’s National Assembly struck a lonely note Monday morning as she called for greater cross-party cooperation.

“In France we don’t manage to get past partisan quarrels,” she said in an interview with broadcaster France 2.

Macron’s reputation has been founded on bold, political moves.

But if he fails to hold back the far-right this month in the coming weeks, his legacy will be the gamble that let the far right into power.

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