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Battered by far right, France’s Macron bets big on risky snap election

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BRUSSELS — Preparing to host the world for the Olympics, facing threats of terrorist attacks and a war of words with Russia, France is now also shaping up as an epic battleground between the West’s political center and its far right.

In European Parliament elections Sunday night, the far right surged in nations including Germany and Austria, but nowhere with more impact than in France. The National Rally there clobbered the ruling centrist coalition so badly that President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the French National Assembly and called snap legislative elections. His bet: that voters might be angry at him, but they’re not prepared to allow the pick of Marine Le Pen — the fiery doyenne of French nationalist, Euroskeptic, anti-immigration politics — to head a new French government.

It’s a bet that carries a high risk.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for a surprise early election, after far-right parties surged in the European Parliament elections on June 9. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Already, the uncertainty was reflected in the French stock market on Monday. The mayor of Paris called the dissolution of Parliament ahead of the Olympics “extremely disturbing.”

The morning after the once-every-five-years European Parliament elections, populist and anti-immigrant parties across Europe were reflecting on a mixed night. Pro-European parties appeared to have won a majority of seats in the E.U.’s legislative body, and far-right parties lost ground in long-illiberal Hungary, as well as in Poland.

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But they celebrated strong showings in the heart of Europe: They claimed the largest share of seats in both France and Italy and placed second in Germany. That performance, combined with solid returns for center-right parties, translated into a rightward tilt for the European Union’s political establishment, five months before U.S. elections.

“I think the reason is not all that different from MAGA support in the United States,” said Jeromin Zettelmeyer, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. Supporters of the far right, he said, see centrist politicians “as catering to urban voters, migrants and minorities.”

The losers? Green parties facing a backlash from voters tiring of the cost of combating climate change and the political centrists in power at Europe’s core.

The election results underscored the extraordinary transformation of the European far right from groups once dismissed as skinheads and neo-Nazis to politically palatable figures who connect with more and more voters.

The outcome particularly undermines Macron, perhaps the region’s strongest advocate for accelerating support in Ukraine. Germany’s center-left chancellor, Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, faces the prospect of tangling with an empowered hard right on a host of issues, including whether to ease back on green policies.

The region’s most empowered leader now is the hard-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party posted massive gains over 2019 and bested even the 2022 numbers that brought her to power. Political support for her closest rival — her deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party — imploded, leaving Meloni as Italy’s strongest prime minister since her mentor, the billionaire playboy Silvio Berlusconi. With centrist leaders in France and Germany weakened, she could wield greater influence in the European debates over irregular migration and the rollout of the region’s green deal to fight climate change.

“Her strength is increased by the weakness of others,” said Nicola Procaccini, a senior member of the European Parliament from Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.

The election’s most obvious winner was 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, the Le Pen protégé who led the National Rally to more than 30 percent of the vote, more than doubling the share won by Macron’s coalition. If voters stick with the party in the French elections, now set for June 30 and July 7, Bardella could become prime minister.

Le Pen now sees “a historic opportunity.” She told the French channel TF1 on Monday that her party is pursuing a coalition, to be led by Bardella as prime minister, to focus on economic recovery and the fight against immigration. Voters in the European election, she said, gave a clear signal: “They said we want to change direction.”

Bardella, like Le Pen, is a nationalist, a Euroskeptic and an anti-immigration hard-liner. But like far-right leaders in Portugal and Poland, Bardella has sought to reinvent what it means to be a politician by cultivating a fun, youthful and social-media-forward image. He has hosted political events at Paris nightclubs.

His surging popularity, particularly among young people, has helped move Le Pen’s movement toward the political mainstream.

Analysts see Macron trying to get ahead of the challenge by pushing a stark choice on the country: the status quo or a far-right prime minister. He might be hoping that warnings will mobilize more voters in a national election, in which differences in the format — higher turnout, two rounds of voting — will play to his advantage.

The challenge before Le Pen remains formidable. To force Macron to name Bardella prime minister, her party would need to grow from its current 88 seats to 289, either alone or with a coalition, to reach a majority in the 577-member National Assembly.

Is Macron’s move “a shrewd calculation or a mad gamble?” asks Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “It’s probably a bit of both.” Calling the election now could help Macron prevent Le Pen from reaching a majority while still allowing her to make gains, Rahman said. That would leave him facing a “more ungovernable mess,” he said, advancing political paralysis and stymieing his agenda. “That’s still a major storm” to contend with.

The possibility of Le Pen looming over France — not only this summer, but until the 2027 presidential race — could fuel European skepticism about Macron’s pledges on support for Ukraine and boosting the E.U. budget.

“I think Le Pen has been having that pervasive influence on the credibility of commitments Macron’s been announcing for quite some time,” Rahman said. “And now we’re going to see that manifest in a more explicit way.”

The first round of voting June 30 will come just three days after a meeting of the European Council at which leaders plan to shape the mandate for the years ahead. Less than two weeks after the second round, on July 7, European leaders are set to meet in London to discuss aid to Ukraine. The Paris Olympics will open on July 26, drawing more attention to the French capital.

“It’s a bit strange that France is entering a phase of political paralysis — when there is an election, no decisions can be taken — at a time when there are so many major international deadlines,” said former French diplomat Michel Duclos, now at the Institut Montaigne think tank.

Macron’s success or failure will depend in part on his party’s ability to mobilize voters with arguments about the nationalist threat and the survival of Europe — arguments that failed to cut through in Sunday’s elections.

Ukraine may be a more effective line of argument. Allegations of improper ties to Moscow have hung over the National Rally and its officials for years and probably contributed to Le Pen’s loss in the second round of the 2022 presidential election.

In a memorable moment of that campaign, Macron told Le Pen in a televised debate that when she speaks about Russia, “you are speaking to your banker” — a reference to a roughly $10 million loan that her party, formerly called the National Front, received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank that has since shut down. Bardella has tried to move past this, and his party announced that it had repaid the loan in full last year, but voters may seek clarity.

Bardella has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but he has also said he does not see Russia as an enemy. Members of the European Parliament who are known for their close relations with Moscow, such as Thierry Mariani, are still on the National Rally’s list.

In Germany, the far right took second place despite recent scandals. Ahead of the vote, the AfD’s lead candidate, Maximilian Krah, was banned from campaigning after suggesting that not all of Nazi Germany’s SS officers should be considered criminals. The Greens, who hold key government portfolios including the foreign ministry, and the economy and energy ministry, lost more than eight percentage points from the 2019 European elections.

“I think when it comes to things like climate, the issue is not so much that voters are no longer worried about climate change, but they’re worried about who’s going to pay for climate change in this cost-of-living-focused environment,” said Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Faiola reported from Rome, and Timsit from Paris. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Kate Brady in Berlin and Catherine Belton in London contributed to this report.

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