French far-right leader Marine Le Pen arrives at the National...

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen arrives at the National Rally party headquarters, Monday, June 10, 2024 in Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the lower house of France's parliament in a surprise announcement sending voters back to the polls in the coming weeks to choose lawmakers, after his party was handed a humbling defeat by the far-right in the European elections Sunday. Credit: AP/Thomas Padilla

The surge of the far right in France in elections for the European Parliament was widely expected. What came next was not.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for a snap legislative election, saying he could not ignore the new political reality after his pro-European party was handed a chastening defeat and projected to garner less than half the support of Marine Le Pen's National Rally.

He hopes that voters will band together to contain the far right in national elections in a way they didn't in European ones.

But Sunday’s decision to dissolve parliament and send to the polls voters who just expressed their discontent with Macron's politics was a risky move that could result in the French far right leading a government for the first time since World War II.

Macron, who has three years left on his second and final presidential term, would then have to find a way to work with a prime minister from a party that deeply opposes most of his policies.

Here is a look at the reasons behind the move.

How did French voters cast their ballots?

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a memorial ceremony in Tulle,...

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a memorial ceremony in Tulle, central France, Monday, June 10, 2024, where 99 civilians were hanged by a Nazi commando on June 9 1944. President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the lower house of France's parliament in a surprise announcement sending voters back to the polls in the coming weeks to choose lawmakers, after his party was handed a humbling defeat by the far-right in the European elections Sunday. Credit: AP/Caroline Blumberg

The far-right National Rally, led by 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, is projected to win the most French seats in the European Parliament, potentially as many as 30 of France's 81, with a provisional count showing them with more than 30% of France's vote.

That would be the culmination of a rebranding campaign that sought to appeal to moderate voters following decades of racist, antisemitic statements by leaders of the party then known as the National Front.

Macron’s Renaissance party has less than 15%, according to the latest estimates — just ahead of the Socialists, whom the French president thought he had managed to obliterate from the political scene when he was first elected president in 2017.

The leftist France Unbowed party could finish in fourth place with around 10% of the vote, and the conservative Républicains about 7%.

Supporters of French far-right National Rally react at the party...

Supporters of French far-right National Rally react at the party election night headquarters, Sunday, June 9, 2024 in Paris. First projected results from France put far-right National Rally party well ahead in EU elections, according to French opinion poll institutes. Credit: AP/Lewis Joly

Why did Macron call a French election?

Macron’s centrist party was the biggest in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, though it lost its majority in 2022, forcing lawmakers to work with politicians on the left and the right to pass bills.

In the face of the far right's crushing victory at the European elections, Macron called the election because he otherwise feared the results would lead to paralysis in the legislature and leave him a lame duck leader three years before the next presidential election in 2027, his advisors have said.

The National Assembly president, Yaël Braun-Pivet, also said the president wanted to show he was responsive to voters. “We are told too often that we do not hear, that we are cut off from the people, and there, the president took a decision following a very clear vote by the French,” Braun-Pivet said on Monday.

What are the risks?

French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said Macron’s decision to call elections is not “a poker move.” But with a deeply divided left and millions of voters no longer frightened by National Rally's policies, betting on a popular surge against the far right three weeks before the balloting looks like a high-stakes bid.

The National Rally, with its anti-immigration agenda, is now well established and represents the largest parliamentary opposition group in the lower house of the parliament. Le Pen made it twice to the second round of the presidential elections after her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did it in 2002. The normalization strategy has paid off following and the party has become mainstream, developing a strong network of officials across France.

Can Macron depend on the left to help him?

The two-round system for the general elections has historically made it difficult for extremist parties to gain ground because mainstream parties work together to isolate those on the fringes. But that strategy may not work this time. In the last general election, Le Pen’s National Rally secured more than 10 times the seats it won five years before.

Far-left politician Francois Ruffin called on all leaders from the left, including the Greens, to unite under a single “Popular Front” banner. “To avoid the worst, to win,” he wrote on social platform X. Others on the left suggested similar cooperation.

Still, Raphaël Glucksmann, the lead Socialist candidate, accused Macron of caving into the National Rally’s calls for a dissolution of the National Assembly. He said the move “will remain a stain on Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term, one more,” and blamed the French president for what he sees as an “extremely dangerous” game.

Le Pen is riding high

Marine Le Pen said Monday evening the results showed that “the French have sent us a clear message. We tell them, ‘Geez, we’re going to do it,’ and we are going to do it with enthusiasm and relief because we want to save this country in three years,” she said, referring to the 2027 presidential election.

For years Le Pen has been the leading figure of the National Rally. But she took a symbolic step back at the European elections, making way for Bardella.

However, in an interview Monday night with TF1, Le Pen made the hierarchy of power crystal clear. The party has earmarked Bardella for the role of prime minister, and Le Pen has continuing ambitions for the presidency.

Bardella had a quick rise to the top after honing his political skills as the president of the party’s youth wing. Although he has been careful not to overshadow Le Pen, his popularity has grown fast, especially among young people.

On the campaign trail, Bardella was often treated to rock-star welcomes, with swarms of screaming fans hoping to get the chance to kiss him or leave with a selfie.

What's next?

If another party, or a coalition, gets a majority of seats at the general election, Macron will be forced to appoint a prime minister belonging to that new majority.

In such a situation — called “cohabitation” in France — the government would implement domestic policies that diverge from the president's plan. The French president would have sway, however, over the country’s foreign and defense policy. Such an arrangement could make France almost ungovernable.

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