Explainer: What’s at stake in France’s election, and could it make Macron’s government even weaker?

Just one hour after the far-right’s surge in the European elections on June 9, French President Emmanuel Macron made the surprising decision to dissolve the French National Assembly and call for snap elections.

The latest polling from last weekend shows the far-right National Rally party leading the race with 35.5% of the vote, followed by the New Popular Front (a coalition of far-left, communist and centre-left parties) with 29.5%, and Macron’s centrist alliance (Ensemble) in third with 19.5%.

With Macron’s government now hanging on by a thread, what is expected to happen in the two-stage election starting Sunday and concluding on July 7?

First, what exactly is the National Assembly?

France has a semi-presidential system of government in which the president and the parliament share power. The president is elected by popular vote and appoints the prime minister, as well as the cabinet ministers (on the recommendation of his or her prime minister).

The government must secure the support of the majority of MPs in the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) to stay in power. If the National Assembly loses confidence in the government, it can dismiss the prime minister and cabinet ministers. The president, in turn, has the power to dismiss the National Assembly.

Feeling the National Assembly was growing less supportive of his government, Macron chose to fire first and dissolve the assembly.

Since the establishment of the current French constitution in 1958, the National Assembly has been dissolved six times by the president. But it had never previously happened on the basis of European-related matters, such as the European elections.

Read more: French snap elections: 'cohabitation' could reshuffle the cards between president and prime minister

Why did Macron pull the trigger?

Officially, Macron called for snap elections because the National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen, received 31.5% of the vote in the European elections, more than double the support for Macron’s centrist party.

Because of this, Macron felt the National Assembly no longer represented the mood of the French people, so he has called for a “clarification” – a word he has repeated over and over since June 9.

The move to dissolve the assembly has been deemed risky by many in France because it gives the far right an opportunity to win a national election and, potentially, form a government. The last time the far right was in office was in Vichy France (the Nazi collaborationist government during the second world war).

Beyond Macron’s talking points, the reality is many were expecting a dissolution of the assembly because the government has grown weaker. What surprised people was not the dissolution itself, but the timing, conflating European and French politics, which are generally quite distinct issues.

Macron has been working with a minority government since 2022. His government has had to find unlikely allies on the centre-right, the left and even the far right in the past two years just to pass legislation.

In the past six months, there has been so much discord in the National Assembly, it has become harder and harder for Macron and his government to do anything. There were also rumours the opposition might unite to dismiss his government in September, after the French summer holidays.

Given his temperament, Macron was never going to allow this chaos to continue for another three years when the next presidential election is due to be held, potentially eroding the public’s trust in their institutions.

Why is France so divided?

French politics has long been dominated by either a strong moderate right or a strong moderate left taking turns in power, with small parties in the centre and even smaller parties on the far left and far right.

This changed under Macron. When he was first elected in 2017, his centrist party demolished the large moderate left and moderate right parties by persuading their MPs to defect to his party. This was the only way the centre could gain power, by forging alliances with the moderates on either side of the political spectrum.

Those moderates who chose to remain in their parties then became more likely to side with the extreme fringe of the far left and the far right. As a result, these factions both grew larger in the National Assembly in the 2022 election, as Macron’s party lost seats.

One could argue that structurally, economically and demographically, France has not changed that drastically in the last decade. Since Macron’s first term, however, the political landscape has become unrecognisable, as polarisation has set in.

At the same time, Le Pen took over from her father as leader of the new National Rally (formerly National Front) party and has successfully “de-demonised” it, transforming it from a fringe far-right party into a large populist movement supported by a much larger portion of the electorate.

So, what is likely to happen?

Macron’s attempt to secure a clear majority in the National Assembly to re-establish a functioning government seems unlikely.

However, the National Rally party and the New Popular Front are not tipped to obtain an absolute majority, either.

As such, there are three possible outcomes:

1) National Rally earns the majority of seats and forms a government with Macron remaining as president. This is known as cohabitation, which means the president and prime minister are from two different political parties.

This is very unlikely to happen, however. The National Rally will gain MPs at this election, but probably not enough to form government. And National Rally leader Jordan Bardella has already indicated his party wouldn’t govern without a clear majority.

2) Macron’s coalition and the New Popular Front will work together to form a government. This would be difficult ideologically, but both sides would likely prefer it to a far-right government.

3) Macron’s coalition does well enough and is able to form an alliance with MPs from the moderate right and the moderate left.

The latter two scenarios are most credible. But whatever the outcome, the next government will likely be even weaker than the current one – precisely the situation Macron had hoped to rectify. The spectre of political instability is worrisome to the French people, as well as the financial markets.

From Macron’s perspective, the election will either be his Austerlitz – one of Napoleon’s most famous victories, in part, because he was outnumbered – or his Waterloo, a terrible military defeat.

But for the president, going somewhere is better than being stuck, even if it ends up not being the direction he had hoped to take.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Romain Fathi, Australian National University

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Romain Fathi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.