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Macron defends decision to call elections, slams possible alliance on the right

French President Emmanuel Macron  (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg)
By Rick Noack Washington Post

PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron defended his decision to call snap legislative elections after a humiliating defeat Sunday in balloting for the European Parliament, saying he hears people’s anger – and thinks they will support his political bloc anyway.

“I want there to be a government that can respond to their anger, to their urgent needs,” he said in a news conference Wednesday.

But it’s not at all clear that the next French Parliament will favor Macron and his allies. In opinion polls, his camp is lagging behind the National Rally, a far-right party guided by Marine Le Pen and her protégé, Jordan Bardella, which won about 31.4% of the vote in the European elections, more than double the showing for Macron’s allies.

The French president dissolved the National Assembly – the lower house of Parliament – and called elections within hours of Sunday’s defeat, apparently stunning even some of his close allies. The first round of voting is now set for June 30 and a second round for July 7, just before NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington and the start of the Paris Olympics.

A far-right victory would not force out Macron, whose term ends in 2027 and who would retain significant power under France’s presidential political system. But by calling legislative elections, he is making a political bet of potentially seismic proportions, analysts say.

He may be hoping for a clearer mandate to govern than he now has. But the elections also open up the possibility of Macron, a centrist, having to share power with 28-year-old Bardella as prime minister. While the National Rally has made electoral inroads over the years, it has never been part of the government or in a position to dominate the parliamentary agenda.

“I don’t believe at all that the worst could happen. I’m an unwavering optimist,” Macron said in dismissing the possibility Wednesday.

His ability to form alliances in the center of the political spectrum appears to be on shaky ground, however. Senior members of Les Républicains, a conservative party, said Wednesday they had voted to oust their chairman Éric Ciotti on Wednesday, after he provoked outrage within his own party by calling for an unprecedented alliance with the National Rally.

But Ciotti disputed the legality of the process to remove him. Some of Ciotti’s allies may still be sympathetic to an alliance and could be willing to risk a split from Les Républicains.

Ciotti’s proposal drew scathing criticism from Macron on Wednesday.

“Since Sunday evening, the masks are falling,” Macron said. He called Ciotti’s announcement “a pact with the devil” and urged moderates to support the president’s bloc.

Macron also faces a shrinking number of potential allies on the left. France’s Socialist Party on Wednesday confirmed an “agreement in principle” with other major left-wing parties.

Some analysts have speculated that Macron may even be factoring in the possibility of a far-right victory, to try to prove that the party is incompetent and unfit to govern before 2027’s more consequential presidential election.

The 46-year-old leader lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly two years ago, and his allies have struggled to pass laws since. His government has used executive powers to push through some of its most controversial projects, including a retirement-age increase last year, which has drawn protests both from the right and the left.

Macron on Wednesday portrayed himself as a firewall against the far left and the far right, which both threaten France’s economic prosperity, he said.

Had he not called snap elections after Sunday’s results, “you would have told me: ‘This guy has lost touch with reality,’” Macron told journalists, citing surveys showing that most French people agree with his decision.

Le Pen, a nationalist, Euroskeptic and anti-immigration hard-liner, now sees “a historic opportunity.” She told the French channel TF1 on Monday that her party will 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.”

Macron on Wednesday defended his political record over the past seven years but acknowledged some shortcomings, such as the slow speed of rural transformation.

He appealed to both center-right and center-left voters, saying his government has boosted funding for law enforcement but also acknowledging that discrimination remains an obstacle to economic success.

A far-right majority in the French Parliament would undermine investors’ trust in the country, he warned.

Since the far-right win on Sunday and his announcement of snap elections, “markets are panicking, the European and international partners are worried,” Macron said. “What does that mean for the lives of French people? Access to loans and housing will be more expensive.”

By catching his rivals, allies and French voters by surprise, Macron also may have hoped to show what’s at stake, he signaled Wednesday.

“I do not want to give the keys to power to the extreme right in 2027,” he said. “So, I fully assume that I have triggered a movement of clarification.”