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Here’s what to watch in France’s snap elections

What this election means for Europe and the world.

- June 29, 2024
French President Emmanuel Macron called for snap elections this week.
French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2019, (cc) Jacques Paquier, via Flickr.

In a bold, unexpected move, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the dissolution of France’s National Assembly on June 9. This was an immediate reaction to big gains by the far right in the European Union elections – and the disappointing results of his coalition.

France’s surprise snap election with an abbreviated campaign will take place in two rounds, on June 30 and July 7, just weeks before Paris is due to host the summer Olympic Games. Tensions are very high right now in France and beyond at the prospect of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) gaining a relative or even absolute majority in Europe’s second-largest economy. 

Here are four things to watch over the next week. 

1. What was Macron thinking? 

Calling a snap election is a prerogative of the French presidency, but nothing in France’s constitution or political norms dictated the dissolution of the National Assembly in the wake of the European Parliament election results

True, the European election delivered a humiliating blow to Macron’s electoral coalition. With a 51.5% turnout, Marine Le Pen’s far-right RN party came in first, with 31.4% of the vote, followed at a distance by Macron’s centrist coalition with 14.6% and a reenergized Socialist Party with 13.8%. 

And true, even though it was an election designed to choose 81 French members of the European Parliament, the spring electoral campaign in France focused mostly on domestic, instead of E.U., issues. There is no doubt that the results were a direct rebuke to the French president and his governing majority.

This could have been the end of it: France sends 30 RN members to the European Parliament, where the mainstream right continues to have a relative majority; and Macron finishes the remaining three years of his presidency. His legislative agenda would face relative inertia but his presidential powers would remain intact in foreign and defense policy.

Yet Macron chose a stunning alternative. Maybe this was a display of political courage and true democracy: Give the French what they really want, instead of waiting another three years until the next scheduled legislative election. Maybe this was a risky gamble: Let the RN come to power now, leaving enough time for French voters to become disillusioned with the RN agenda by the next presidential election in 2027. Or maybe the French president, long accused of running a lonely “Jupiterian” one-man-show, took the E.U. election result as a personal affront that needed to be redressed. 

In any case, history has not always been kind to French presidents who dissolved the National Assembly. This has happened just five times since the Fifth Republic was created in 1958. In 1997, the last one, right-wing President Jacques Chirac gambled that he would gain a better governing majority. Instead, that snap election produced a left-wing majority, and Chirac was forced to “cohabitate” for the next five years. 

2. Time for another partisan political realignment?

Even in a country where political parties have been more volatile and less permanent than in the United States, the last two cycles of French electoral politics have been in a particularly heightened state of flux. The 2024 snap election might be the final consecration of this decade-long reorganization of parties and cleavages.

Historically, some parties have withered away or changed names from one election to the next. Or parties ran as part of ad hoc coalitions, often to be disbanded soon after the electoral contest. The one constant was the left-right cleavage, which waned in the 2017 presidential election that first brought Macron to power and revealed deeper divisions. The mainstream left imploded in 2017, with the Socialist Party of the sitting president at the time of the election getting less than 7% of the votes. Longtime socialist voters scattered their support all over the political spectrum, from the populist far-left La France Insoumise (LFI) to the Greens to Macron’s party. 

In the 2022 presidential election, it was time for the mainstream right to implode, garnering less than 5% of the votes. This implosion was not a fluke, it turns out. What was left of Les Republicains (LR) party splintered last week, as the party dramatically tried to exclude its own leader for striking an alliance with the RN.

In spite of the last-minute nature of the two-round snap parliamentary election, polls suggest high turnout – about 65%, vs. 49% in 2022. This could be the most consequential legislative election in decades, with the far-right on the verge of occupying the prime ministry. 

While traditional parties are crumbling, new alliances are forming. Part of Macron’s calculation may have been to splinter even further the parties of the left, which rarely agree on anything. Yet that calculation backfired, as they hastily arranged into a Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) – an homage to the Front Populaire (Popular Front) left-wing alliance created in 1936 to counter the rise of fascism. This ad hoc electoral coalition includes, notably, the Socialists, LFI, and the Ecologistes (Greens).

Macron’s hope of splintering the right may also backfire. Yes, the mainstream right is now a non-entity, but the RN is surfing on its momentum. Why would France finally be ready for the RN now? Along with many in Western democracies witnessing the rising appeal of illiberalism, voters in France have a shared sense that they have tried almost every party, and combination thereof, and nothing worked to improve their personal lot – so why not give a chance now to the only party that has not governed yet? The RN vote used to be a negative protest vote against the party in power. This seems to have switched, with an increasing number of RN voters claiming that they are now voting positively in favor of the RN’s program and values.

3. Will France be governable?

Macron has clearly said that he will stay in office until the end of his presidential term in 2027. He will most likely be forced to “cohabitate” with a prime minister of a different political family. At best, he can expect political deadlock; at worst, political chaos. What are some of the possible scenarios?

One party gets the absolute majority:

This would mean a prime minister from that party – either the RN’s young Jordan Bardella, the current Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, or someone from the leftist Nouveau Front Populaire. But this scenario seems unlikely according to opinion polls.

If the RN or the NFP were to win, they would quickly run into trouble with their legislative agenda. Their programs call for increasing spending, including restoring the previous, lower retirement age, without an accompanying plan to raise revenue. This would be a particularly acute problem since the E.U. just gave France a fiscal warning about its excessive deficits. France is already the OECD country with the highest taxation rates.

One party gets a relative majority: 

The RN could build on its European election momentum and win a relative majority. Other parties in the French legislature might then try to form a republican front to block the far-right’s accession to power. Or, on the contrary, individual representatives would join with the RN to form a governing coalition. Alternatively, the NFP or Macron’s Renaissance party could come first. In that scenario, parties and candidates with very different policy views would jockey to form a governing coalition – but would then be unable to agree on anything. Both of these scenarios are a recipe for deadlock and instability.

4. What this election means for Europe and the world

France is the world’s seventh-largest economy, a nuclear power, and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Whatever earthquake or mayhem happens in French politics is therefore consequential for the European Union and for the rest of the world. 

Paralysis, infighting, instability, and further fiscal deficits will undoubtedly weaken Macron’s priorities and France’s standing in Europe, especially as Hungary will hold the rotating E.U. presidency starting on July 1. A government dominated by the RN would further transform the positions France has defended in the E.U. on issues such as trade, agriculture, environment, and, of course, immigration. 

On foreign and security policy, the RN’s views are quite different from Macron’s priorities, starting with Ukraine and Russia. The possibility of a politically weakened Macron has sparked genuine concern within the E.U. and NATO. Even more alarming is the open declaration by Le Pen and Bardella that they would challenge the core competencies of the French presidency. Until now, defense policy and spending have been part of the president’s institutional “reserved domain.”

Some scholars have argued that far-right governments in liberal democracies have more bark than bite when it comes to foreign and security policy. Once in power, they face the same constraints as previous governments, which moderates their stance. This could be the case if the RN comes to power, as part of a coalition or even alone. Alternatively, it’s possible that the simultaneous accumulation of far-right populist parties in several Western democracies (Italy, France, maybe the United States) creates a threshold effect – one that will have a definite effect on some policies, such as support for Ukraine.

Sophie Meunier is senior research scholar at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, co-director of the European Union Program at Princeton, director of Princeton’s Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society, and acting director of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.