A much-shared video, recorded on Tuesday in the European Parliament corridors by Tomio Okamura, a right-wing Czech party leader, shows him with Dutch BVV leader Geert Wilders, Italian La Lega’s Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen, all colleagues in the Identity and Democracy group of, yes, populist Right-wingers. All are wreathed in smiles, two days after Euro-elections that favoured them, continent-wide, at the expense of the Left and the Centre. They are joking about Macron’s probable trouncing come the 7 July second-round of the snap general election the French president called after his party only got 15% of the vote in the European elections. “He was very useful to us!”, Wilders jokes. “Yes, we’re going to miss him!” Le Pen, whose National Rally came first with a third of the vote, laughs.

This is the new political reality in Europe. Macron immediately announced a snap legislative election, to be held in a mere three weeks’ time. His high-risk electoral gamble was called barely an hour after polling stations closed, at 9:00pm Sunday night, when the size of the Jordan Bardella-led National Rally list’s victory became clear. The Rassemblement had come first in 93% of France’s 36,000 villages, towns and cities, adding up to a third of the national vote from 38 separate lists.

Macron called in, besides half a dozen of his Cabinet heavyweights, the speakers of both National Assembly and Senate, who are required to record the dissolution of the House. Le Président (who since Charles de Gaulle is elected separately) had planned his decision secretly, taking into his confidence only four people: his former spin doctor, now the vice-president of Publicis, France’s largest ad agency; Pierre Charon, an old-style Sarkozyste senator; Richard Ferrand, the first Macroniste Speaker of the National Assembly, a former Socialist; and a former journalist turned speechwriter and Brigitte Macron’s closest adviser, Bruno Roger-Petit. No member of this informal war council was known to the electorate, unless they have a passion for the workings of power in Paris; and none was likely to contradict him. The dissimulation, the mercurial decision, the small court of the ultrafaithful: all of this was typical of Macron’s style.

Less predictable were their reactions: possibly for the first time since his 2017 election, he was told to his face he was wrong. Both PM Gabriel Attal, named only five months before, and the current National Asssembly Speaker, Yaël Braun-Pivet were shocked and angry. In what universe did Macron think he had any chance of winning a legislative election? Attal, already fallen from grace at Court in recent weeks, now shouted at his boss that he was “irresponsible”. (“They didn’t come to blows, but it was close”, a witness said.)

Braun-Pivet, a former barrister and the only one of Macron’s women appointees to have grown into her job (Macron has always had a woman problem: his close circle is entirely male, save for his wife Brigitte; his female hires were either nonentities, or odd enough that they became unthreatening) argued he had said he would remain in office after what was, after all, a non-national, vote, and that not sticking it out would harm in Cabinet and his party. Others, including Home Secretary Gérald Darmanin, who had expected to spend half the summer overseeing the security challenges of the Paris 2024 Olympics, concurred: it would be a disaster.

Macron, faced with the mice that roared, was unfazed. As in the past seven years of his rule, he wasn’t asking for their advice, merely telling them. He then went on TV, dressed like a provincial undertaker, saying that a new vote would be more “democratic”, and gave the dates for the two rounds.

Je prends mon risque,” he repeated. This is an odd, favourite expression of his that belongs to the roulette table or the poker game: the fate of the nation reduced to a high-stakes personal gamble.

What soon became obvious was the speed trap he had set for everyone. Electoral law dictates a strict timetable for when the candidates for all 577 constituencies must be identified, each with the name of a political party or alliance. In this instance, everything had to be sorted on Thursday night, in a fractured landscape where the need to come to an agreement  forced together incompatible political partners. Those were concluded, and platforms published in time to be sent to every single voter in the country — looking like forced marriages, with party programmes that read like prenups.

So far, so Succession. The Left-wing Alliance, improbably calling itself the New Popular Front, in reference to the 1936 Léon Blum Cabinet, brings together people who have weekly chanted “From the River to The Sea” (and sometimes “Death to Jews”), with that rump of the old-style Socialist Party that lit up the Paris City Hall and the Eiffel Tower with the Israeli flag after 7 October. Raphaël Glucksmann, son of Nouveau Philosophe André, whose Place Publique mini-party had pulled his Socialist associates out of near-extinction to poll 14.8%, five points above the hard-Left Mélenchonista faction and a mere half-point from the Macron list on the promise that he was offering a social democrat alternative to the extremes, swallowed his principles and agreed to join the NPF.

On Friday morning, after a sleepless night, the self-same Nouveau Front Populaire pulled out of their collective hat the most Left-wing platform since the old days of the French Communist Party, far more radical than François Mitterrand’s in 1981. It includes nationalising utilities, cancelling pensions reform (bringing back retirement at 60), the return of the wealth tax, increasing inheritance tax (which already reaches 45% above £1.5m for direct descendants, and above £22,000 for everyone else), a cap on maximum inheritance (this is part of a chapter headlined “Abolishing the privileges of billionaires”), a “distance tax” on imports, an exit tax (to anyone leaving the country), and many, many, many more imposts. The Green Deal is “bettered”, with the option of a “popular referendum” on nuclear power (somewhat bewildering since they also promise to lower all heating bills immediately). Macron’s Immigration law would be cancelled, new immigrants would receive a “better welcome”, on and on: when the 12-page programme started circulating, several journalists checked that it was real and not a piece of clever National Rally propaganda.

This is probably the one piece of good news for the conservative Républicains, who, unlike the Left, have shown a dramatic lack of discipline. They are split between the party president, who wants an alliance with the National Rally, and the rest of the grandees, who don’t — and have no chance of gaining any seat without allying themselves with Emmanuel Macron, the most unpopular politician in France right now. (Their voters are fairly evenly split.) Macron himself has told his shell-shocked Cabinet the current mess will bring voters back to him.

The entire post-politics premise of Macronisme has been trashed: the “en même temps” (“at the same time”) mantra that first got him elected seven years ago, a 39-year-old in a hurry, proclaiming that there was no longer a Left or a Right, only modern young technocrats reinventing shiny ways of dealing with our world.

“The entire post-politics premise of Macronisme has been trashed.”

Like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, France is divided in three parts: a generous Left often tempted by revolution, a Right split between timidity and  national-radicalism ,and a centre that historically has been all things to all voters, from rump Christian Democracy to social reformism. All were in many way impacted by Gaullism, the post-WWII cross-class political oddity that in many ways is the closest to original French populism.

Kicked out of power in 1946, Charles de Gaulle built his own party as he had the Résistance in exile: a common purpose was enough. Ever since it returned to power twelve years later, it retained some of its populist roots, increasingly diluted. The last of its iterations is Les Républicains, as it renamed itself under Nicolas Sarkozy. Les Reps haven’t been doing well since Sarko lost after a single term to the Socialist François Hollande in 2012. In the 2022 presidential election, their candidate, the Paris Region president, Valérie Pécresse, won 4.75% of the vote, disastrous news because campaign expenses are only refunded above 5%. This nearly ruined the party, sparking endless acrimony.

The most recent Républicain primaries saw the victory of the Nice MP Eric Ciotti, a sharp-tongue Right-winger in keeping with the Provence-Côte d’Azur mood (it’s the region most RN MPs come from, and where Eric Zemmour got the most presidential votes.) Les Reps’ Euro elections candidate polled 7.25% last Sunday. Ciotti, on his own, made his calls, met with Bardella and Marine; and announced on Tuesday that Les Reps would build alliances with the National Rally, breaching a taboo that had kept the traditional Right rigidly apart from anything run by someone called Le Pen.

All hell broke loose. Most party grandees, past and present, thundered that Ciotti should have consulted them, and a hastily convened political bureau was called to expel him from the party, as contradictory to its fundamental values. “Half the membership approves. This gives me all the legitimacy I need,” declared Ciotti, channelling his inner Bonaparte. The incensed grandees had to meet in a nearby café, because Ciotti, bunkering down at headquarters, had locked the doors. He countered that the politburo meeting hadn’t been called according to statutes, and was, therefore, invalid; he started drafting candidates for 80 constituencies, 20 of which, he told hopeful candidates, were winnable because in their negotiation the Rally had agreed not to run candidates against the Reps ones. “He’s got the membership register, the Twitter account, the logo and the chequebook,” one of the potential candidates told me. “The others are nowhere.”

A Paris court was last night deliberating on the legality of this. And, meanwhile, having vowed they never would, the Républicains grandees have now drawn up lists of constituencies with Macronista incumbents they will not dispute, in a non-aggression pact that benefits the President far more than it helps them.

Le Pen and Bardella are over the moon. The Ciotti bonanza, which helps them in two or three dozen constituencies, also enabled them to kill off Eric Zemmour and his competing mini-party, Reconquête!, whose 5% voters could spoil several contests. There were strongly-felt and immensely personal reasons at play here. Le Pen saw her political inheritance, the Rally, which she had painstakingly reshaped to serve her presidential bid, attacked by an arrogant upstart who’d managed to with over her own niece, Marion Maréchal.

From the moment he founded Reconquête!, Zemmour, a talented journalist, whose books on France’s unique destiny and the dangers of unchecked immigration have sold several million copies, decided he could transmute his viewers and readership into a political destiny. As he threw his hat into the arena in the last presidential contest, it seemed to be working. From the summer of 2021, long Trump-like queues awaited him at every stop of a “book tour” as he signed his doorstoppers and talked politics, with his trademark lopsided smile, sense of irony and demotic friendliness. A young and effective social media team blitzed all channels, a former organiser from Sarkozy’s victorious 2007 campaign was hired, and Zemmour’s poll numbers rocketed — at one stage he was predicted to win 21% of the vote in the first round.

All this was punctured by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2024. Zemmour who only speaks (elegant) French suddenly looked like a one-issue man in a dangerous and complex world. He made the mistake, asked about welcoming Ukrainian refugees, to answer that they should remain in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries rather than come to France. This sounded mean-spirited and ungenerous. (He has admitted in a recent book that he’d got it wrong, but had tried to remain consistent with his immigration line.) His numbers dropped like a stone, and he finally polled at 7% in the first round, immediately encouraging his voters to cast their ballot for Marine Le Pen in the second round “without haggling”.

Long before he became a politician, Zemmour consistently advocated what Eric Ciotti is now attempting to create, l’Union des Droites, an alliance between all parties on the right. He expected his generous declaration to be welcomed by Marine Le Pen. It wasn’t. She had taken note of every slight, every jest, every disparaging mention when he was polling far ahead of her. “We are going to great-replace Marine!”, he joked, using the expression coined by the writer Renaud Camus, who believes there is a dastardly plot to replace indigenous European populations with new immigrants.

Zemmour was delighted to have snagged Maréchal, who after early political successes left the Front rather than be ordered about by her aunt. Articulate, combative, more intellectual, Maréchal, a fluent English and Italian speaker led the Reconquête list last Sunday, and polled a little above 5%, earning her party five EuroMPs.

By that time, Zemmour was no longer interested in any agreement with the Rally — but Marion, a realist, was. When Zemmour promised to run Reconquête spoiler candidates against RN ones, she opened her own negotiations with Bardella and her delighted aunt.

On Tuesday, Marion announced an alliance in front of the slack-jawed Zemmour during a TV interview — and that she was taking three of her newly-elected Euro MPs as war booty over to the Rally. Zemmour promptly expelled her and her acolytes from Reconquête!, and has since called her a “world champion on treason”. Unelected to any office — he wasn’t standing in the Euro-elections, his partner and adviser Sarah Knafo, a 31-year-old ENA graduate, was; she will be the only Reconquête! MEP in Brussels —

Zemmour cuts a lonely figure at Party HQ on rue Jean Goujon less than a mile from the Elysée. He is the first obvious loser of France’s Macron-crafted political earthquake, but he certainly won’t be the last.

Watching over this toxic brew, with his puppets rushing about as in a silent movie sped up to 30 frames per second, impervious to all criticism, is Emmanuel Macron, the Destroyer Of Worlds, convinced that he can pull a personal miracle out of the chaos. He believes the acceleration he has invoked will force everyone to make fatal mistakes. He has no sense of debt to any of the old politicians he dragged into his net, or to the young ones, such as his last PM, Gabriel Attal, built up as “the best of his generation”, now an encumbrance. It has only ever been about himself, anyway. And should he lose this gamble, with a Le Pen or Mélenchon majority on the evening of 7 July, he has already hinted that he will resign, rather than living through a “cohabitation” like his predecessors, François Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac, forced to slog it though with a hostile National Assembly and PM. He has quietly consulted the Constitutional Council: he can’t stand again immediately, but in five years’ time, he’ll only be 51. Tomorrow belongs to him.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/