The Center Collapses in France, Leaving Macron Marooned

An era has ended in France.

The seven-year domination of national politics by President Emmanuel Macron was laid to rest by his party’s overwhelming defeat in the first round of parliamentary elections on Sunday. Not only did he dissolve Parliament by calling a snap vote, he effectively dissolved the centrist movement known as “Macronism.”

The far-right National Rally, in winning a third of the vote, did not guarantee that it will win an absolute majority in a runoff six days from now, although it will likely get close. But Mr. Macron, risking all by calling the election, did end up guaranteeing that he will be marginalized, with perhaps no more than a third of the seats his party now holds.

“The decision to dissolve the National Assembly has, in fact, put an end to the political configuration that emerged from the presidential election of 2017,” said Édouard Philippe, one of Mr. Macron’s former prime ministers.

In 2017, Mr. Macron, then 39, swept to power, eviscerating the center-right Gaullists and the center-left socialists, the pillars of postwar France, in the name of a 21st-century realignment around a pragmatic center. It worked for a while, but increasingly, as Mr. Macron failed to form a credible moderate political party, the result has been one man and a shrinking circle of allies standing against the extremes of right and left.

That stand, which sometimes served Mr. Macron well, has now collapsed in one of the more conspicuous self-inflicted debacles in recent European politics.

Mr. Macron did not have to call an election just weeks before the Paris Olympics, even though the National Rally trounced him in European parliamentary elections. It is a measure of the desperate straits of France today that a meager victory for Mr. Macron would now be defined as keeping the National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, from an absolute majority in the National Assembly, even if the price of that is ungovernable chaos.

“They’re done,” Luc Rouban, a senior research fellow at Sciences Po University in Paris, said of Mr. Macron’s centrist movement. “I do not see any margin of maneuver for them.”

France, unlike Italy or Belgium, has no culture of living in limbo without an appointed government for long periods. But that possibility now looms.

If the National Rally wins an absolute majority, Mr. Macron will almost certainly have to live with Jordan Bardella, 28, Ms. Le Pen’s protégé, as his prime minister since that party would move to topple anyone else. But Mr. Macron and Mr. Bardella — with opposing viewpoints — would find themselves in an uncomfortable partnership.

If there is no such National Rally majority, Mr. Macron will be faced with a very large far-right group, and a large left and extreme-left alliance in the Assembly, all viscerally opposed to him. It is unclear how he would form a governing coalition. The only possibility might be some form of caretaker government headed by technocrats pending a further dissolution of the Assembly a year from now, when the Constitution would allow it again.

The National Rally and its allies qualified for the second round of voting in over 480 districts and were in the lead or directly elected in 297 of those, according to an analysis of the results by Franceinfo. Mr. Macron’s centrist coalition, by contrast, is poised to lose many of the 250 seats it had held since 2022, qualifying for the runoff in 319 districts and leading or being directly elected in just 69 of them. A party needs 289 seats to hold an absolute majority in the Assembly.

Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party urged its candidates to pull out of some constituency races where they finished in third place in the first round. The goal is to avoid splitting the vote and so prevent the far right from winning an absolute majority.

But, in yet another sign of division, some centrists were reluctant to do so in favor of the left because of what they see as a catastrophic economic program and remarks from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far left leader whose passionate support of the Palestinian cause has appeared more than once to cross a line into antisemitism.

“Nobody chose this dissolution,” Gabriel Attal, the outgoing prime minister who was once a favorite of Mr. Macron, said pointedly on Monday. “But I refuse that we be its victims.”

Mr. Macron, who is term-limited and must leave office in 2027, will remain as president and, if Mr. Bardella becomes prime minister, will no doubt portray himself as the surviving rampart against a far-right that sees immigrants as second-class.

But his authority on domestic policy will be limited and his voice on the international stage, traditionally the exclusive domain of French presidents, will be diminished, particularly with respect to the European Union, where the euro-skeptic National Rally will do what it can to return power from Brussels to the nation. Mr. Macron has been a fierce advocate of what he calls “Europe power.”

It was striking that both Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Bardella chose to make their victory speeches Sunday against the backdrop of the French flag, without the blue and gold European Union flag that hangs from every city hall and government office in France, including the Hôtel de Matignon, residence of the prime minister, and the president’s Élysée Palace. The message that international priorities are shifting was unmistakable.

So why did Mr. Macron call for the election?

It seems clear that he miscalculated, particularly with respect to the left, which he thought would splinter between moderate socialists and Mr. Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, increasing the chances that his own party would qualify for the second round. That fracture never happened. Rather, the New Popular Front coalition of those left-wing parties won 27.99 percent of the vote to Mr. Macron’s 20.04 percent and secured a place in many more runoffs.

A second miscalculation was that Mr. Macron believed he could still be a unifying figure when animosity toward him has grown steadily over his seven-year presidency. He wanted to embody the Republic and its values against the extremes. Too few voters were ready to buy that.

They appear, instead, to have felt alienated by his perceived aloofness and highly personalized rule, typified by the shock decision to call the election. The longtime taboo against the National Rally no longer counted.

“This was a personal rejection,” said Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist. “People no longer want Macron bringing them together.”

If true, as it appears to be, that would constitute a heavy blow to Mr. Macron. A highly intelligent man, with a ready wink and charm, he has always seen himself as able to persuade anyone, from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to former U.S. President Donald J. Trump, to agree with him. It did not always work, but his bold determination to break political barriers never abated.

He talked to Mr. Putin for months after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2022, when almost nobody else in the West would. This year, he would not rule out putting western troops on the ground in Ukraine, when almost everyone, led by President Biden, refused the idea. He declared that Europe faced “death” if it did not begin to emancipate itself from the United States, when plenty of other European states thought putting distance between the allies would be the death knell. Finally, advised by a tiny coterie, he called this election to the astonishment of many of his own ministers, who saw in it an almost suicidal move.

“The Macron thinking went that the house will burn down in three years,” said Nicole Bacharan, an author and political scientist, referring to the possibility that Ms. Le Pen would be elected in the 2027 presidential election. “So let’s burn it down now. Then we will see.”

France is a country of strong institutions and deep democratic traditions underwritten by the rule of law. It does not, and will not, burn easily. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and a nuclear power, it commands an important place in international affairs that will persist, even if its domestic travails impinge to some degree on that.

Its economy, in part because of Mr. Macron’s policies, has drawn enormous foreign investment in recent years, and unemployment has decreased. Even if the national debt and the budget deficit have risen to levels that have alarmed both the European Commission and ratings agencies, its economic vitality seems greater than a troubled Germany’s. Nobody driving through France sees a country on the brink.

Yet Mr. Macron has ushered France to a dangerous watershed. There was a reason a political barrier was long erected against the National Rally, with its quasi fascist history (now disavowed) and its enduring belief that immigrants dilute the essence of the French nation. The party provokes extreme reactions and troubled memories of the collaborationist wartime Vichy government.

Many members of France’s large Muslim minority, estimated at some five million people, are fearful of rule by the National Rally. In general, a feeling of profound uncertainty has settled over France.

“Burning a house is dangerous,” Ms. Bacharan said, “and Mr. Macron should have known that.”

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