French centrists losing sleep after Macron’s gamble on snap election

<span>Polling showed 57% of French people want Macron to resign if his centrists are defeated in the parliamentary election.</span><span>Photograph: Michel Euler/AP</span>
Polling showed 57% of French people want Macron to resign if his centrists are defeated in the parliamentary election.Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

France’s prime minister, Gabriel Attal, stared ahead with his arms folded while another minister covered his face with his hands as Emmanuel Macron gathered top government figures at the Élysée last Sunday to make the shock announcement that he would dissolve parliament and call a snap legislative election in the wake of a win at the polls by Marine Le Pen’s party. The mood, said Attal, was “grave”.

One senior centrist figure said this week they had not slept properly since the announcement of a campaign that will be the shortest in modern French history at barely three weeks. Some party supporters said their world had been turned upside down. “We’re going to get out there and do our best,” said a government minister.

Macron’s opponents on the left have deemed it utter folly to call a sudden parliamentary election at a time when support for the far-right, anti-immigration National Rally (RN) is at its highest level in history. Several politicians said Macron was playing Russian roulette.

Le Pen’s National Rally was founded as the Front National by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. For decades it was regarded as a danger to democracy that promoted racist, antisemitic and anti-Muslim views, but last week’s European elections it got a record 31.4% of the French votes. This was double the score of Macron’s centrists, who are at their lowest ebb. Le Pen’s support is also increasingly evenly distributed – her party topped the vote in more than 90% of the communes of France.

Related: French elections: who are the key players and what is at stake?

Predicting the next result is complex, but pollsters agree on the broad trend: the far right could make massive and historic gains, going from 88 seats to more than 200, potentially allowing it to enter government. A united front of parties on the left could come second. Macron’s centrist group, founded in 2016 as a radical reinvention of the French political landscape and that promised to reinvigorate politics and curb the appeal of the far-right, could lose a large chunk of its seats and come a distant third. At the end of it all, there could be no absolute parliamentary majority.

Amid bafflement on why an election was called, Macron described himself as an “unshakeable optimist” who was “in it to win”. He said he trusted French voters to now make a distinction between expressing anger at the ballot box in the European elections and risking having an extremist government in France that he said would destroy the cohesion of society and wreck the economy. He said he was convinced a large number of French people did not “recognise themselves in this extremist fever” and would vote to save the centre ground.

A member of Macron’s entourage said the snap election was admittedly “brutal” for his centrist MPs, many of whom are already out campaigning to save their seats, but it was “necessary” and “rational”. Macron, after a European election defeat by the far right and two fraught years with no absolute majority in parliament, could not continue without listening to the people, the source said.

Macron argued this week that he could deliver a new broad centrist coalition government if more politicians joined him from the traditional right and social democrat left. But that form of coalition has proved impossible since Macron’s re-election in 2022, when his centrists lost their absolute majority in parliament.

While the D-day commemorations in Normandy had an impact on the election in the UK with a row over Rishi Sunak’s early departure from the ceremonies, it seemed that Macron’s recent presence at a week of commemorations on the Normandy coast had led him to believe his relationship with the French people was not as fraught as many suggested.

In Bayeux, after a speech in homage to Gen Charles de Gaulle, he had taken off his jacket for an unusually long walkabout among locals who asked him to sign autographs and pose for selfies. His team had expected 800 people; 3,000 turned out. The crowd was there to mark the memorial event rather than national politics but Macron’s entourage believed it showed there was less personal hatred for the president than the French media made out.

And yet the mood in France is tense. Macron’s confidence ratings have dropped and voters from the centre left deserted him in the European elections, accusing him of veering right with a law on immigration and pushing through a raise in the pension age. Macron argued that polls showed a majority of people approved of his decision to call a snap election. But polling by CSA showed 57% want Macron to resign if his centrists are defeated in the vote.

The president insists he will not resign. Even if RN did manage the steep challenge of reaching an absolute majority in the French parliament and forming a government with their 28-year-old leader, Jordan Bardella, as prime minister, Macron could remain president for three more years and still be in charge of defence and foreign policy. However, he would lose control over the domestic agenda, including economic policy, security, immigration and finances.

Macron offered a broad spectrum of campaign ideas this week, from calling a national consultation on secularism in France to banning mobile phones for children under 11. He warned that France faced a choice between his own centrists “or the extremes”, saying there were two extremes in France, which he called the far right and the far left. He said Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftwing France Unbowed party was extreme and warned other parties on the left against an election alliance that included them. But that alliance could score higher in the snap election than Macron’s centrists.

“It’s going to be very difficult for the centrists,” said Stewart Chau, the director of polling at Vérian Group. He said public opinion viewed Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament and call an election less as an act of courage than as “an arsonist playing with fire”.

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