Will Macron be the undoing of European centrist politics?

Whatever French President Emmanuel Macron’s strategy was that led him to go all-in with calling snap elections, it looks like he lost. His high-risk gamble to contain and beat back the political extremes in France has backfired. It is not without irony that Macron, who entered the national and European stage as the prodigy of centrist politics, may be its undoing, as the person who paved the way to power for Marine Le Pen’s right-wing extremist National Rally. Macron’s underestimation of voter discontent, of the dynamism of the National Rally, of the likelihood of a united left, and of the willingness of the center-right Republicans to ally with Le Pen underlines how big the president’s miscalculations and isolation from the political realities really were.

Given the two-round run-off electoral system, much will depend on whether Macron and his challengers outside of Le Pen’s party can mobilize the traditional “republican front” and agree to tactical withdrawals of third-place candidates to boost the chances of non-National Rally candidates. The initial signs from Macron, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, and the political left give some hope. As Raphaël Glucksmann, a left-wing member of the European Parliament, put it in calling for a united front: “We have seven days for France to avoid a catastrophe.” But the center-right Republicans seem less willing to stand down. An absolute majority for the National Rally is within reach but still looks unlikely.

Macron’s previously successful strategy to mobilize the center by scaring voters about the potential of the right and left fell flat this time.

For France and Europe, the two most likely outcomes are both a fundamental challenge. At best, Paris could be mired in political chaos, gridlock, and uncertainty if no clear majority—relative or absolute—emerges after the second round. That would also mean a paralyzed, absent France at the European level where—think what you like of his vision statements—Macron was one of the few leaders who sparked major European debates and challenged the European Union (EU) to act, even if his framing, wording, and timing often left much to be desired. Whatever the precise impact of a hung parliament might be, Macron’s freedom of action and his legitimacy in the eyes of other EU leaders will be seriously curtailed.

At worst, an absolute majority for the National Rally would give Macron little option but to allow the National Rally’s Jordan Bardella to form a government in what would be cohabitation in one of its most incompatible forms. Abroad, at the European level, a National Rally government might not only challenge the president’s “reserved domain” in foreign and defense policy but also use its budgetary powers to undercut France’s support for the single market, the EU budget, and key initiatives from support to Ukraine to enlargement and institutional reforms. The longer-term result could be a challenge to the EU as formidable as the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote in 2016—this time not as one big-bang Brexit-like withdrawal, but rather a creeping, piecemeal attempt at a partial “Frexit” and a Europe of nations from within.

For those trying to see some commonalities with the United States’ own leadership contest this fall, the lesson might be that it’s not good enough to be the perfect democrat. Macron’s previously successful strategy to mobilize the center by scaring voters about the potential of the right and left fell flat this time, despite a record turnout. As electorates are coping with cost-of-living crises, growth that has not benefited the many, and migration pressures, merely invoking the principles of the republic—American or French—to mobilize voters for centrist candidates might not be sufficient any longer.

Jörn Fleck is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: Portrait of Emmanuel Macron, president of France, on the steps during the reception prior to the official meeting between the French President and prime minister of Hungary, at the Elysee presidential palace, in Paris, FRANCE, 26 June 2024.