Macron’s Calculated Risk: Political Lessons from Europe

TK Arun

Macron may or may not pull off his gamble, but his willingness to act to overcome the blow his party was dealt in the European polls deserves to be commended.

Suppose the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front of Kerala, which runs the state government, suddenly dissolves the state legislature and calls for snap elections to the assembly, in order to reaffirm its democratic legitimacy, after being routed in the recent Lok Sabha elections. That would be a political gamble of the kind that we in India do not expect any of our prudent politicians to venture into.

But it is precisely such a gamble that French president Emmanuel Macron has embarked on. He has dissolved the National Assembly, after his party was trounced in the recent elections to the European Parliament, and called for fresh elections, three years ahead of term. The first-round voting will take place on June 30, and the second round, if it becomes necessary, and there is little reason to expect otherwise, would take place on July 7.

Indian examples

In India, we rarely come across daring political gambles of this kind. A notable one was of Indira Gandhi’s capture of the Congress party. Indira Gandhi backed VV Giri as the nominee for President of India, against her own party’s official candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, called upon MPs to vote according to their conscience, got Giri elected, and painted herself as a socialist combating the reactionary party leadership, by nationalizing banks and stopping the erstwhile princes’ privy purse. She split the party, made the recommendation to dissolve Parliament, obligingly acted on by President Giri without demur, called for fresh elections, and won a handsome majority.

Another major political gamble that India has witnessed has been the invalidation of large-denomination currency notes by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2016, announcing it as a move to destroy black money. It was calculated to tap into the class anger of the poor against the filthy rich, although it was presented as an economic move. It widened the support base of the BJP and the prime minister beyond an upper-caste-urban minority, even as it destroyed small enterprises, jobs and incomes totalling one percentage point of GDP, according to the government’s own Economic Survey.

Macron’s decisions

Macron is one of the handful of political leaders in the world who do what they consider to be the right thing to do, even if it makes them extremely unpopular. In 2023, he pushed through pension reform, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. In neighbouring Belgium, the retirement age has been 67 for years, and other rich world countries, too, have raised the retirement age, taking note of enhanced lifespans that both enable people to have an extended, healthy work life and prolong the period for which pensions have to support them after they stop earning. The French Left has vigorously opposed the reform.

The Ukraine war and Europe’s boycott of Russian oil and gas have pushed up the cost of living across Europe, and brought down economic growth. Instead of seeking to end the war through a peace deal, European leaders, including Macron, have been egging Ukraine on to keep fighting. Extreme Right-wing and Left-wing political parties have capitalized on the disaffection caused by inflation and by the interest rates pushed up to combat inflation, to rally support for themselves.

Europe’s political spectrum

European nations tend to have political parties spanning the spectrum from the extreme Left to the extreme Right. Communists of various shades and environmental extremists form the hard Left. Moderate socialists and parties like Macron’s Renaissance, Germany’s Centre-Left Social Democrats, and Centre-Right Christian Democrats represent the Centrists.

The party ruling Italy, the Brothers of Italy, is descended from the original fascist party of Benito Mussolini. Germany’s growing Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) recently removed a leader who declared that not all members of Hitler’s SS stormtroopers were bad people, reminiscent of Donald Trump’s characterization of white supremacist marchers confronting Black Lives Matter protesters as fine people. France’s National Rally, led by Marine Lepen, is the gentrified successor to the more openly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic National Front led by her father, the late Jean-Marie Lepen.

The Ukraine war effect

The Ukraine war, Europe’s uncritical support for the US decision to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, and the resultant economic hardship have diminished the popularity of Centrist parties and raised the vote shares of parties to the extreme Left and the extreme Right. While Europe-wide, the Centre still holds, in France, in the polls to elect members to the European Parliament, the extreme Right-wing National Rally got 31 per cent of the votes, more than twice as much as Macron’s own Renaissance. The hard Left came in second.

Macron already lacks a majority in the National Assembly, and has to rely on ad-hoc coalitions and a unique provision of the French Constitution that a law proposed by the government appointed by the President would pass, even if a majority of the National Assembly does not endorse it, so long as the Opposition does not bring the government down in a vote of no confidence.

Macron’s gamble

It is in this context that Macron has decided to gamble. French elections to the National Assembly have two rounds. To be elected, a candidate has to get more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, and 12.5 per cent of the registered voters, while the turnout has to be at least a quarter of the registered voters. If no one qualifies in the first round, all those who have got 12.5 per cent of the registered voters can take part in a second round.

Here, tactical voting comes into play. While the National Rally, according to opinion polls, would get 35 per cent of the vote in the first round, if fear of the rise of the hard Right persuades others to carry out tactical voting to defeat the party, its candidates would lose.

Macron is gambling that, while the French were content to register their protest in the European elections, they would not want the hard Right to secure a majority in the National Assembly and form a government at odds with the Centrist President. Centre-Right, Centre-Left, and extreme Left parties, he hopes, would be persuaded to support Ensemble, a centrist coalition he has cobbled together around his own Renaissance.

He might or might not pull off his gamble, but Macron’s willingness to act to overcome the blow his party was dealt in the European elections, rather than passively survive as a zombie government, deserves to be commended.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as Lessons from Emmanuel Macron’s readiness to gamble on June 22, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.