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Battered by Far Right in E.U. Vote, Macron Calls for New Elections in France

Battered by Far Right in E.U. Vote, Macron Calls for New Elections in France

President Emmanuel Macron of France, battered by a crushing defeat from the extreme right in European elections, dissolved the lower house of Parliament on Sunday and called for legislative elections beginning on June 30.

His decision, announced in a television broadcast to the nation, was a measure of the tumult created by Mr. Macron’s severe defeat in elections to the European Parliament. Projections gave the National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen and her wildly popular protégé, Jordan Bardella, about 31.5 percent of the vote, and Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party about 15.2 percent.

“The rise of nationalists and demagogues is a danger for our nation and for Europe,” Mr. Macron said. “After this day, I cannot go on as though nothing has happened.”

The French leader has always been a passionate supporter of the 27-nation European Union, seeing in it the sole means for Europe to count in the world and calling on it to achieve “strategic autonomy” through ever greater integration. But the political winds have turned and many French people appear to favor Europe less, not more.

Mr. Macron’s decision, on the eve of the summer Olympic Games that begin in Paris in July, ushered in a period of deep political uncertainty in France. If the National Rally repeats its performance in national elections, the country could become nearly ungovernable, with Mr. Macron confronting a Parliament hostile to everything he believes in.

“It’s a serious, weighty decision,” he acknowledged. “But above all, it’s an act of trust” in French voters, he said.

French parliamentary elections take place in two rounds. The second round will be held on July 7, less than a month from now.

Given France’s important place at the heart of the European Union, the European election result was a significant sign of a strong rightward drift in Europe, driven mainly by concerns over uncontrolled immigration. The nationalist right has also been far more ambivalent than Mr. Macron and other Western leaders about supporting Ukraine.

Ms. Le Pen, in an exultant speech, said she welcomed Mr. Macron’s decision.

“We are ready to exercise power if the French people place their trust in us,” Ms. Le Pen told a cheering crowd of supporters in Paris. “We’re ready to turn the country around.”

A National Rally triumph in the legislative elections that Mr. Macron just called would not topple him from office. But depending on the results, it could force him to appoint a prime minister from his political opposition — perhaps even from the National Rally.

Earlier, in his victory speech, Mr. Bardella, 28, called Mr. Macron a “weakened” leader and admonished him to take account of the vote by dissolving the National Assembly. “This was a verdict against which there is no appeal,” he declared. “France has demonstrated its desire for change.”

Mr. Macron accepted the challenge.

He was under no obligation to dissolve Parliament, even if the European vote left him a reduced figure with three years of his presidential term still to run.

But he has often taken risks, rolling the dice to see if France awakens at last to what he perceives as a dire nationalist and xenophobic threat to the country’s liberty, democracy, openness and rule of law.

He called the far right nationalist wave a danger “to the place of France in Europe and the world” and noted that he was saying this “as we have just celebrated with the entire world the landings in Normandy and will in a few weeks welcome the world for the Olympics and Paralympics.”

Mr. Macron, somber in an uncharacteristic black tie, spoke as President Biden left France after a five-day stay. The central theme of his visit was how the American forces who, eight decades ago, fought their way up the Normandy bluffs through a hail of Nazi gunfire to wrest Europe from tyranny, should be an inspiration to Western democracies in defending liberty in Ukraine.

Ms. Le Pen’s party was long close to the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, a policy now revised, officially at least.

Ms. Le Pen said the “great victory of patriotic movement accords with the direction of history, which sees the return of nations everywhere,” adding that, “it closes the painful globalist parenthesis that has made so many people suffer in the world.”

Sunday’s election results did not come as a surprise, but they were an overwhelming disavowal of Mr. Macron, who had repeatedly cast the vote as crucial for the future of a “mortal” European Union that has seen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bring war to its doorstep.

Luc Rouban, a senior research fellow at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris, said Mr. Macron’s call for new legislative elections was a risky gamble to “reassert control over a political situation that had become too unwieldy,” especially after the last legislative vote in 2022 left him without an absolute majority in Parliament.

“He could end up with a cohabitation,” Mr. Rouban said of the upcoming vote. “But to wait was to let the far right prosper, and to let the situation deteriorate until the presidential election — when the National Rally could take the Élysée.”

After decades on the fringes, it now appears clear that the anti-immigrant French far right is firmly ensconced in mainstream politics, with Mr. Bardella, the young president of the National Rally party, as its fresh new face. His party won no less than double the vote of Mr. Macron’s.

Whether Mr. Bardella might supplant Ms. Le Pen as the party’s leading figure even before the next presidential election, in 2027, when Mr. Macron is term-limited, is now an open question. Ms. Le Pen has been the National Rally’s perennial presidential candidate and perennial loser since 2012.

The party has traditionally fared well in European parliamentary elections, where 360 million voters in 27 nations across the European Union tend to vote their anger and frustration as there are few direct domestic consequences. It led in voting percentages in 2014, and again in 2019, when Ms. Le Pen’s party edged out Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party with 23 percent of the vote, to 22 percent.

But its performance on Sunday, when the abstention rate in France dropped compared with the last election, was of an altogether different order. With close to a third of the vote, the National Rally has attained a pivotal place in French politics, a fact reflected in Mr. Macron’s decision to call for elections.

The victory was seen as an embarrassment for mainstream parties in general, although the center-left Socialist Party showed some signs of revival. The results reflected a widespread feeling in France that immigration is uncontrolled at the borders of the European Union, and that Mr. Macron has taken a lax approach to lawlessness and violence.

Mr. Bardella campaigned insistently on a supposed loss of French identity, alluding to the danger of the country’s “disappearance.” He also attacked “punitive” ecological measures, often dictated by the European Union, that, he insisted, make life unaffordable.

Yet his positions on issues like immigration and crime match Ms. Le Pen’s. The difference for a significant number of voters is that he does not share the Le Pen family name — and its unsavory association with the racist and antisemitic roots of the party’s founding as the National Front, by Ms. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972.

Mr. Macron’s party spent months languishing in second place in the polls, far behind the National Rally. The top Renaissance candidate, Valérie Hayer, a little-known lawmaker at the European Parliament, left voters cold. The campaign appeared lackluster, and attempts by Mr. Macron to revive it, including through a major speech in April on the future of Europe, backfired.

The National Rally made the election an anti-Macron referendum. It appears to have worked.

Seven years in office have taken a toll on Mr. Macron, who upended French politics when he burst on the scene to become president at the age of 39. Now the extent of that disillusionment will be tested by a snap election.

In his brief victory speech, Mr. Bardella was measured and firm. “With this historic score for our party, French citizens have expressed their attachment to France, its sovereignty, its identity, its security and its prosperity,” he said, calling on Mr. Macron to rethink immigration policy, protect farmers and defend purchasing power across the country.

“He was impeccable, as usual,” said Nadège Moia, 45, a sales representative who was at the party’s raucous victory gathering in a conference center east of Paris.

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting.

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