A small circle of advisors helped Prod Macron take a huge risk

His prime minister was one of the last to know. So secretive, so limited to a small group of advisers, was President Emmanuel Macron’s shocking decision to dissolve parliament and call French parliamentary elections.

Gabriel Attal, 35, was a personal favorite, his prodigy, when Macron appointed him prime minister in January. But just months after tasking Attal with reviving his government, Macron ignored him as he considered one of the most important decisions of his presidency: whether to call elections at a time when the anti-immigrant National Rally party had flourished.

Mr. Macron’s style has always been intensely top-down, but this time he has toyed with the possibility of ushering in the once unthinkable in the form of a far-right government. The small group that made the decision was so narrow-minded that even many of his ministers and supporters were stunned by his willingness to take such a gamble.

a photographer Posted by Mr.’s official photographer. Macron on Instagram, captured the dismay when Mr. Macron on June 9 told his government about his decision. Mr. Attal, arms crossed, looks blank. Gérald Darmanin, the longtime interior minister who has since announced he will likely leave the government, looks incredulous, his hands clasped in front of his face.

Mr Macron, who describes himself as an “incorrigible optimist”, insists he had to call the election, which would leave him as president but could force him to share power with his sworn opponents for his final three years in office. His favourite word has become the “clarification” that he believes only a national vote can deliver. After his party was trounced in the European Parliament elections by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, it would have been a sign of contempt for democracy to pretend nothing had happened, he told journalists.

Yet nothing obliged him to hold early elections just weeks before the Paris Olympics that could bring the nationalist right to power.

“He has played Russian roulette with France,” said Célia Belin, senior policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. “It’s almost unforgivable.”

Certainly, something has changed. Mr. Macron, who took the country by storm seven years ago when he came from nowhere to bury the old relationships of French politics and become president at the age of 39, now seems increasingly isolated in his bold — some would say arrogant — certainties, surrounded by a shrinking circle of acolytes.

“’I take you, I drop you’: that’s Macron and that’s what he did with Attal,” said Marisol Touraine, a former health and social affairs minister and Mr. Attal’s political guru. “He consumes people.”

Paris is awash with expressions such as “wild gamble”, “lost touch with reality” and “blinding ego” as people struggle to understand why their president chose to risk so much.

The reality of France today is that the National Rally, which has softened its image but retained its core belief that immigrants represent a dilution of Frenchness, has proven to be the party most adept at tapping into widespread fears, resentment and anger towards an exalted president.

Mr. Macron, twice elected and never defeated on the national stage, still believes he will prevail, and of course it is still conceivable that he could. He believes that the French, faced with the threat to some of the core values ​​of the Republic and the extreme left whose anti-Semitic outbursts have shocked many people, will once again opt for the common sense of ‘la Macronie’, the pragmatic politics of a right-wing tending center.

Inside his entourage, officials who insisted on anonymity in line with French political practice said the idea that Macron had become unpopular was a myth. They cited as evidence his appearance this month on the streets of Bayeux, a town in Normandy, where about 3,000 people turned out to greet him, far more than the 800 expected.

“Many people may not like Macron, but they do respect him,” one official said.

It took courage to change a country that could withstand any dilution of its social model. In seven years, Macron has reduced unemployment, made France attractive to fast-growing foreign investment, fostered a booming tech start-up sector, fought hard to convince the French that a retirement age of 62 is no longer reasonable, and steered the country through the Covid 19 crisis.

What Macron has failed to do, however, is shed an image of arrogance shaped by elite education and distancing himself from the concerns of French people struggling to make ends meet in places far removed from the knowledge economy of big cities.

This failure is now accompanied by the beginning of a fin-de-régime stampede on exits, as Macron has a term-limit and must leave office in 2027.

The result is clear enough. The latest Ifop-Fiducial poll this week gave Macron’s party and its allies just 21 percent of the vote in the two-round elections on June 30 and July 7. The National Rally had a comfortable lead with 36 percent, and the New Popular Front group of parties ranging from socialists to the far left with 28.5 percent.

The perceived hostility towards him is so great that many centrist candidates insist they do not want Macron’s image linked to their campaigns.

In many ways, the way Mr. Macron decided to dissolve the National Assembly and call elections seems like Exhibit A in his highly centralized style of governing. Even by the standards of the Fifth Republic, which was conceived in 1958 to give the presidency vast powers, Mr. Macron has governed in his own head and according to his own edict.

“He never gave up even a little bit of his power to exercise it collectively,” said Hakim El Karoui, a private consultant who works on immigration issues that have been at the heart of the National Rally’s rise.

Even Macron’s government itself is frayed. A group of just four people, including a former journalist, Bruno Roger-Petit, who advises Macron on French national memory, came up with the idea of ​​a dissolution on the night of the European Parliament elections, according to an account in Le Monde this has since been widely confirmed.

This led to Bruno Le Maire, the Economy Minister, describing Macron’s advisers as “lice” in a TV interview last week. Le Maire has had to fight hard to stabilize the French economy since early elections were called. Unpredictability is not what investors want, and France’s debt had already soared due to support for workers and businesses during Covid lockdowns.

Macron’s former prime minister, Édouard Philippe, widely seen as a likely presidential candidate in 2027, declared this month: “It was the president who killed the presidential majority.” He added: “We are moving on to something different, and something different cannot be the same as before.”

That seems almost certain. It is likely that the National Rally will be the largest party in the new National Assembly, even if it may not win an absolute majority. It is also likely that Macron’s party will come in third place, behind that of Mrs Le Pen and the New Popular Front, which represents the left.

This would then be the ‘clarification’, but one that brings with it a double ambiguity.

If the National Rally wins an absolute majority, Mr Macron may have to appoint 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, Ms Le Pen’s popular protégé, as prime minister. Mr Bardella could then choose his cabinet. France has seen “cohabitations” before, but never between two men with such diametrically opposed beliefs.

Even if the National Rally does not win a majority, Mr Macron will face a deeply divided parliament, more ungovernable and less favorable to him than the one he dissolved, with the possibility of political chaos over several months. He has denied that he would resign in such circumstances.

Mr. Macron remains steadfast in his belief that he will be acquitted. “I don’t have a defeatist spirit,” he recently declared.

Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, was not convinced. She accused Macron of spoiling the Olympics. “Why ruin this beautiful moment with elections being called in the blink of an eye without consulting anyone?” she asked.

On June 18, Macron attended a meeting commemorating Charles de Gaulle’s famous broadcast from London on that day in 1940, calling for resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. The occupation would soon spawn France’s collaborationist Vichy government, a disturbing reminder at this point for many who fear the far right.

When a boy from the crowd asked about Mr Attal, Mr Macron said: “He could be my little brother.” Shortly afterwards, the 35-year-old Mr. Attal, who had agreed to lead the centrist campaign in the elections, at the same place and was informed of the exchange.

Clearly confused or in disbelief, the prime minister replied: “What did he say?”

Macron’s decision on early elections has certainly made his compatriots dizzy: to what end is the most frequently asked question in France these days.

Segolène Le Stradic And Catherine Porter contributed reporting in Paris.

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