Macron’s reckless gamble shows how little he cares about the fate of French people like me

Macron’s reckless gamble shows how little he cares about the fate of French people like me

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Twenty-two years after Jean-Marie Le Pen was unexpectedly voted through to the second round of a French presidential election – an electoral shock that drew nearly a million people on to the streets in protest – the threat of the far right coming to power has returned.

On 9 June, French voters gave Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) an unprecedented victory in the European elections. Her party won a record 31.5% of the vote, twice as many votes as the centrist alliance backed by President Emmanuel Macron. A separate far-right list headed by Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, won a further 5% of the vote.

If that was not enough, the humiliated Macron found a way to turn his defeat into a full-blown crisis by dissolving the National Assembly and calling snap elections. A new prime minster will be appointed after the second round on 7 July, and given the collapse in support for Macron’s centrists, there is a chance the far right will form the next government.

We can only assume that Macron was attempting to reshuffle the deck in order to outmanoeuvre the far right, even though they were the ones demanding an election. Or perhaps his strategy is to let RN assume political responsibility and hope that, exposed to the reality of government, it will disappoint public opinion and be reduced to irrelevance at the next presidential election in 2027. He could then ensure that his successor in the Elysée is not from the far right. Either way, Macron seems delusionally proud of his chess move. Le Monde reported a private conversation the day after the European elections in which the president boasted his “delight” at having “thrown an unpinned grenade” at the far right, and said that he had planned this tactic “weeks ago”. The Elysée has denied the story.

But is this really the moment for such a gamble, just to prioritise the Macron legacy? Three weeks is a recklessly short election campaign, given what is at stake and the chaos that could lie ahead. And whatever his intentions are, choosing to treat the country like a roulette table shows how little Macron cares about the fate of millions of French people. How does he think those most likely to be the chief scapegoats of a government led by a party co-founded by Nazi apologists – including Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted three times for dismissing the Holocaust as a “detail” of history – are feeling now?

By dissolving the assembly in the current climate, Macron has offered the extreme right an unprecedented opportunity to increase its grip on parliament and, potentially, to govern France. In doing so he is deliberately playing with our lives. Many of us – women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people, Jews, Muslims, minorities – know how concrete and violent the consequences of such an election could be.

The rebranded far right may have erased the shameful traces of its past, but its extremist ideology has not changed
Hours after RN’s victory, four men were arrested for a transphobic and homophobic assault in Paris. They told police that they were members of an extreme right group and that in three weeks’ time they would be able to beat up as many gay people as they wanted.

In the banlieues, local mayors say how concerned they are for people of colour. I took part in last Saturday’s protest in Paris against the far right, and I could tell how shocked many of those who turned out were to realise how unwelcome they could soon be in their own country. People whose family members were born abroad or who don’t hold French citizenship have told me how scared they are.

Their fears are hardly irrational. The rebranded and now well-groomed RN may have managed to erase the shameful traces of its past and mask its extremist ideology, but that ideology has not changed. Marine Le Pen has worked hard to soften her image and appear more relatable. During the 2022 presidential campaign, she made a display of her love for cats on Instagram, and sang popular songs at public appearances, painting herself as a regular person more in tune with “ordinary” people than the elite. Le Pen grew up in the bourgeoisie, and she likes her male parliamentarians to always wear a tie in public so that they are taken seriously and seen as capable of running the country. Jordan Bardella, 28, RN’s president and lead candidate in the European elections, and now one of France’s most popular politicians, has carefully crafted his image as the model young man. Bardella has a million and a half followers on TikTok. But his hardline Islamophobic, anti-immigrant messages are neatly concealed behind a smile that seems constructed to be reassuring.

But behind the public image, the noxious ideology has not gone anywhere. RN’s racist and xenophobic positions unmistakably place the party at the furthest extreme of the political spectrum. Take its conduct in the European parliament, where Bardella has held a seat since 2019. He and fellow RN MEPs voted against the recognition of slavery as a crime against humanity, opposed resolutions on the rescue of migrants at sea and on reducing the wage gap between men and women. They did not support proposals to allocate a budget to combat violence against women or in favour of the EU becoming a zone of LGBTQIA+ freedom. In the French parliament many of them have opposed a constitutional amendment to guarantee free and legal access to abortion.

They pretend to care about social justice and the wellbeing of the poorest, but their votes demonstrate their lack of interest in addressing economic inequality. They have voted against increasing the minimum wage, against indexing salaries to inflation and against increasing student grants. They also opposed freezing prices on rent and essential goods.

The racism that underpins the party’s convictions is now viewed as legitimate by its voters. According to one study, 92% of RN voters believe that “most immigrants do not share our country’s values and that this creates problems for coexistence”.

But instead of taking on this far-right ideology, Macron has, over his two terms in office, chosen to make his policies more appealing to far-right voters. He must take some responsibility for helping to normalise its ideas. The president desperately tried to establish a binary opposition between his party and the far-right during the European election campaign by making it his main opponent. This contributed to the invisibility of progressive ideas. He sent his prime minister Gabriel Attal out to debate against Bardella and offered several times to debate Le Pen herself.

In his post-dissolution press conference, Macron urged voters to oppose “two extremes”, implying that the French left was as dangerous as the far right. Equating parties of the left, whose programmes are built on social justice for all, and which explicitly oppose racism, sexism and LGBTQIA+phobias, is itself both false and dangerous.

It is Macron who has created an atmosphere in which far-right ideology is normalised and mainstreamed. The immigration bill passed through parliament by the government last year included so many of the hardline demands of the far right that Le Pen claimed it as a victory. When he appointed a new education minister in August 2023, Macron chose not to address the profound inequalities of a school system in crisis, but to pander to crude Islamophobic tropes, targeting female Muslim pupils wearing abayas.

Macron is not the only politician to have helped pave the way for far-right electoral success. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy fanned the far-right idea of immigration as a threat to French “national identity”, while François Hollande tried to change the constitution to make it easier to strip citizenship from dual-national French people convicted of “crimes against the nation”. During the 2022 French presidential campaign, Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the conservative Les Républicains, talked about the threat of the “the great replacement”, a racist conspiracy theory that has been used to demonise Muslims as modern Europe’s “colonisers”. Instead of being roundly debunked, RN’s racist ideas have spread across the political spectrum, with disastrous potential consequences for millions of people.

But if Macron was betting on a fractured left with his snap election thunderclap, he was wrong. Leftwing parties have put aside their divisions, uniting to save France from extremism.

Our destinies cannot depend on careless calculations. We need to defeat the far right now, and then rid our political life of the scourge of its ideas.

The Guardian