Why France’s nationalist revolution could be coming for Britain too

macron and starmer
macron and starmer

Will the summer of 2024 go down in the history books as the most dramatic that France has seen since the student uprising of May 1968? Paris had already been bracing itself for the Olympic Games in late July.

First came the shock of the European elections a fortnight ago, when France’s electoral map was transformed as the hard right Rassemblement Nationale (National Rally) swept into first place.

Then, rather than accept this crushing defeat, President Emmanuel Macron has conjured up out of thin air the biggest political crisis for decades. Alone, without consulting ministers, Macron called a snap election for France’s own legislature, the National Assembly. Two rounds of voting will be held on June 30 and July 7.

At a stroke, he detonated the whole party system. The only party that remained united was the National Rally, now Marine Le Pen’s electoral vehicle, but also the latest, less extreme incarnation of the Right-wing movement founded by her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. After a lifelong march through the institutions, she is ready not only to conquer but to consolidate her victory.

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella's party could well reach the 289-seat threshold for an absolute majority in parliament
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella's party could well reach the 289-seat threshold for an absolute majority in parliament - THOMAS PADILLA/AP

Is this the death of liberté, the revanchist France of Vichy settling its scores with the France of the Resistance? Or is it on the contrary a vindication of French democracy, forcing the hard Right to take responsibility? Either way, nothing like this has been seen on the European political landscape before.

The last National Assembly election two years ago gave Le Pen, who lost the presidential contest to Macron earlier in the same year, just 88 seats. This time, thanks to the party fielding a double act of Le Pen, now 55, and the putative premier Jordan Bardella – a tall, fresh-faced 28-year-old prodigy from the estates of St Denis – it may well reach the 289-seat threshold for an absolute majority.

With only a week left until the first round of the parliamentary election, the atmosphere across the Channel is tense, even hysterical. The Paris bourse has collapsed, falling even behind the anaemic London Stock Exchange. While Macron has avoided a post-pandemic recession and tamed inflation, the panic unleashed by his election gamble is putting the economy at risk.

What more could possibly go wrong? The answer, unfortunately, is plenty. France is vulnerable to shocks because its politics has always been unpredictable. Since 1789, Paris has lived through one occupation, two empires, three monarchies, four revolutions and five republics.

So far, the only thing missing is that centuries-old Parisian tradition: riots.

Violence simmers just below the surface. Tens of thousands of troops, already summoned to Paris to assist the gendarmerie in policing the Olympics, are now on standby to keep order.

A drama is taking shape to rival any sporting spectacle: the ancien régime of Emmanuel Macron dematerialising before our eyes. A National Rally victory would leave him as a lame-duck until 2027, when he must leave office.

Yet France has a well-deserved reputation for sang-froid. From beyond its borders the country seems perpetually on the edge of chaos – then you go there, and it is just wonderful.

Will it be different this summer?

Chaos on the Right

No sooner had the president delivered his bombshell announcement than Éric Ciotti, the leader of the centre-Right Republicans (the equivalent of the British Conservatives), broke the taboo that had always surrounded the Nationalists by offering them an electoral pact. Immediately, civil war broke out among the Republicans.

Furious party grandees demanded his dismissal and expulsion from the party. To forestall a formal meeting at the party headquarters, Ciotti locked them out and barricaded himself in. Now a court has ruled that he should be reinstated as leader, but the party remains hopelessly divided.

Éric Ciotti, with Bardella, split his Republicans party but aligning with the far-Right after the European elections
Éric Ciotti, with Bardella, is the leader of the centre-Right Republicans but the party is hopelessly divided - NATHAN LAINE/BLOOMBERG

Seeing his rivals on the Right in disarray, Bardella has raised the stakes. He has vowed that in the event of a hung parliament, the Nationalists will remain in opposition. They will only form a government if the electorate hands them an absolute majority.

This is a further blow to those Republicans, led by Ciotti, who were hoping to form a broad coalition of the Right. With that option ruled out, polls suggest that more than half of Republican voters, longing for the smack of firm government, will switch to the National Rally. The party of Nicolas Sarkozy, the heirs to the Gaullist tradition, seems doomed to electoral oblivion.

Fear and loathing on the Left

This prospect has alarmed the Left sufficiently to have formed the New Popular Front. This is an attempt to revive rose-tinted memories of the Popular Front of the 1930s, when Léon Blum became the first Socialist prime minister with the help of the Communists.

Just as the original Popular Front soon disintegrated, however, so the Left today is bitterly divided – not least over Israel and Gaza. The largest of its six parties, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, is so extreme that most French Jews fear the anti-Semitism of the Left far more than the Right.

Indeed, France today seems less hospitable to its Jewish community – the third largest in the world, after Israel and the US – than at any time since the Vichy era. Even Serge Klarsfeld, the veteran Nazi-hunter, says that he would rather vote for the National Rally, despite its history of Holocaust denial, than for the New Popular Front, whose members include, he claims, “radical anti-Semites”.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon's France Unbowed, is so extreme that most French Jews fear the anti-Semitism of the Left far more than the Right
Jean-Luc Mélenchon's France Unbowed is so extreme that most French Jews fear the anti-Semitism of the Left far more than the Right - SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP

Now a barbaric case combining anti-Semitism and rape has prompted heavy criticism of the Left, who are accused of stirring up anti-Semitic sentiment. A week ago in Courbevoie, northwest of Paris, a 12-year-old Jewish girl was raped and brutalised by two boys, who held a lighter to her cheek and threatened to kill her if she told the police. Another boy reportedly called her “a dirty Jew” and anti-Semitic material was found on their phones.

Such assaults are not unusual in a country where there are many less affluent Jews whose families originated in North Africa and who live in the same deprived neighbourhoods as Muslims. Bardella is especially eloquent in weaponising the malaise of such tough suburbs because he grew up in one. With anti-Semitic attacks across France rising by more than 300 per cent in recent months, he has plenty to stir up.

Both Bardella and Le Pen have blamed Mélenchon and France Unbowed for using Gaza as a pretext to stir up anti-Semitic violence. Macron’s ministers are following suit, while protestors are on the streets chanting “Mélenchon in prison”. The New Popular Front is creaking at the seams.

The Britain of the future?

Of course, anti-Semitism is a huge subterranean issue in London as well as Paris, and France offers a glimpse of one all-too-possible future for Britain. Here, as in France, support for the traditional parties of the centre Right and Left is shrinking: in this election, even with a Labour landslide, they and the Tories combined are likely to receive the lowest percentage of the vote ever.

Starmer may, like Macron seven years ago, unify the centre for one last time. But if, as seems likely, Labour support proves shallow, we could see the centre soon giving way, as British politics polarises to the extremes.

Indeed, we already have our own charismatic populist on the Right in the form of Nigel Farage. With the Tories disintegrating, as the Republicans have in France, the Left could also split into warring factions. If the Labour Party falls victim to hubris after its impending victory, it could go the way of the French Socialists. In less than a decade, they have shrunk from a dominant mass movement to a minor fringe party.

The Macron mutiny

Primary responsibility for the end of the postwar political order in France must be laid at the door of Emmanuel Macron. After seven years of defying political gravity, even his closest allies fear that Macron may have met his Waterloo. Now, like Napoleon’s Old Guard, his foot soldiers are indeed being ordered to march towards the guns. The emperor may seek death or glory, but some of his officers are on the point of mutiny.

One of Macron’s former prime ministers has even launched his own party. Édouard Philippe has bluntly declared that the president should stay out of the campaign, given that as head of state he must work with whoever emerges victorious. Another Macroniste is even more frank: “Lock him up.”

Prime minister Gabriel Attal described Emmanuel Macron's decision to hold elections as 'brutal'
Prime minister Gabriel Attal described Emmanuel Macron's decision to hold elections as 'brutal' - NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP

The present prime minister, Gabriel Attal, was only appointed in January as the youngest (and first openly gay) prime minister in French history. Still only 35, his career — like that of his former partner, the foreign minister Stéphane Séjourné — may be about to come to an abrupt end.

No wonder Attal has described his patron’s coup de main as “brutal”. Tasked with rearming France, he has barely had time to drum up a few Mirage jets for the D-Day commemoration, so that the president could make a grand gesture to Ukraine by donating the planes to the visiting Volodymyr Zelensky.

Meanwhile Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, was reported by Le Figaro to have muttered: “The country’s going to the dogs.” He acknowledged that many people had reacted with “anxiety, misunderstanding and sometimes anger” to the president’s decision. Evidently the minister was one of them.

Le Maire was the model for Bruno Juge, the heroic protagonist of French literature’s bad boy Michel Houellebecq’s novel Anéantir (Annihilate). Unlike Macron, who despite his force of character is seen by other intellectuals as something of a poseur, Bruno Le Maire is the very embodiment of an homme serieux. His criticism of Macron carries weight in a country that likes its politics to have a literary dimension.

So why did Macron gamble with the fate of France? The leading historian and biographer of De Gaulle, Julian Jackson, took a positive view when I spoke to him last week. “Macron has done exactly what De Gaulle would have done,” he said.

President Macron is showing a confidence about his decision to hold elections that few of his supporters share
President Macron is showing a confidence about his decision to hold elections that few of his supporters share - CHESNOT/GETTY

Nearly two centuries ago, Thomas Carlyle, chronicling the French Revolution, saw something uniquely French about this unshakeable faith in the future: “In the death-tumults of a sinking society, French Hope sees only the birth-struggles of a new unspeakably better Society.”

But there is an air of desperation about Macron’s latest throw of the dice — and no sign that his confidence is infectious. The centrist Macronistes who have run France know that their days in office are now numbered. For many of them next Sunday’s ballot will be a metaphorical guillotine.

What sustains them is the widespread expectation that a new nationalist government would immediately face a flight of capital and a financial crisis. Hence Bardella has been holding urgent meetings with corporate business; the Financial Times reports that his charm offensive has had some success.

The radical recipe for success

Even under the present circumstances, however, French debt is already breaking the EU’s fiscal rules. It won’t take much for a sharp hike in interest rates to feed through into the economy and vitiate Bardella’s pledges.

These include reversing Macron’s unpopular rise in the pension age from 60 to 62 plus cuts in fuel tax to appease farmers, motorists and others. These policies won’t survive contact with the reality of global markets, the Macronistes say. They are counting on Le Pen’s popularity evaporating before the next presidential election in 2027.

But what if the nationalists focus on their core programme: closing radical mosques and deporting as many Islamists and illegal migrants as possible?  At her rallies, Marine Le Pen gets roars of approval when she says: “Give me one reason to keep on our territory foreigners who collaborate with a totalitarian ideology that wants the death of the French people.” Her ultimate aim is la préférence nationale (national preference), meaning that children of foreigners would not automatically enjoy full constitutional rights.

What really excites Le Pen’s audiences is when she talks about expelling Salafist (fundamentalist) preachers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. That gets the crowds chanting “Marine President”.

Éric Zemmour's party, Réconquête!, has been split by the defection of Marion Maréchal, niece of Marine Le Pen
Éric Zemmour's party, Réconquête!, has been split by the defection of Marion Maréchal, niece of Marine Le Pen - LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

However, on banning dual citizenship, Le Pen has rowed back – perhaps persuaded by Bardella, the son of Italian immigrants. Le Pen and Bardella have a useful “hard cop, soft cop” routine: she appeals to hardline older voters, while he woos the more ethnically diverse young. It works.

The key issue for the Marine/Jordan double act is the fact that street violence, especially in areas with a high or majority Muslim population, has become endemic. Often it has a political edge – attacks on buildings that display the French tricolor flag, for instance.

The nationalists were once regularly dismissed as the protest vote of the small town petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry. It is now a mass movement, embracing everyone from blue collar workers to elegant Parisian society.

Bardella has played a key part in detaching the party from its old image as a coterie of racists and anti-Semites, led by the former Pétainist Jean-Marie Le Pen. That is an ultra-reactionary milieu that often feels that Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, has sold out. Even further to the Right is Éric Zemmour’s party, Réconquête!. Zemmour propagates the conspiracy theory that the native white population of France is being deliberately replaced by Muslim immigrants.

Until last week, Zemmour could claim that his party boasted the authentic voice of French youth — none other than Marion Maréchal, the 34-year-old niece of Marine Le Pen. But Maréchal has now called on voters to support her aunt, causing Réconquête! to implode, as Zemmour purged her and three more of its five MEPs. Now that Maréchal is no longer in the party, it seems likely that its support base will shrink still further.

The star of the Left

All this turmoil on the Right is mirrored on the Left, where another new star has arisen. Raphaël Glucksmann is the son of the philosopher André Glucksmann, who made his name in 1975 when he abandoned Marxism, then still fashionable in French academia, and devoted the rest of his life to the fight against totalitarianism.

His son Raphaël Glucksmann, now 40, has the good looks and charisma to become a new tribune of the centre-Left. He has formed his own party, Place Publique (Public square), which gained a springboard in the European Parliament in alliance with the old Socialist Party.

Raphaël Glucksmann is the great hope of the moderate Left
Raphaël Glucksmann is the great hope of the moderate Left - SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP

Like the Socialists, Place Publique has joined with France Unbowed, the Ecologists (Greens) and others in the New Popular Front. Glucksmann is contemptuous of the National Rally – “We can’t leave France to the Le Pen family,” he says. But his visceral loathing of Mélenchon is mutual: the old demagogue sees Glucksmann, like his father, as a Zionist traitor.

For his part, Glucksmann is a strong supporter of Ukraine against Russia and Israel against Hamas, both causes that are deeply unpopular on the French far-Left. He had to persuade a reluctant France Unbowed to describe the attack of October 7 as “terrorism” and not to call Gaza a “genocide”.

In the unlikely event that the New Popular Front were to form the next government, Glucksmann would be the popular choice to lead it. He has ruled out Mélenchon as prime minister: “We need someone who can achieve consensus.” With all his stardust, though, Glucksmann could never achieve consensus on the Left, let alone in the country.

What would the nationalists do with power?

Though objectively one of the richest countries in the West, France still thinks of itself as the home of the impoverished masses, as depicted in Les Misérables — in other words, a country whose instincts lean to the Left. The state is omnipresent: no member of the OECD spends more on welfare. France is also a country where the politics of envy play well compared to elsewhere: 53 per cent think the rich should pay very high taxes.

Yet the Left carries a lot of baggage in France. Since the last Socialist government of François Hollande ended in 2017, France has moved steadily in a Rightward direction. Now that the taboo on voting for Le Pen and Bardella has been lifted, a French Keir Starmer is unlikely to emerge.

But there are doubts about how much the National Rally would be able to achieve in office, given that it would be stuck in an unhappy “cohabitation” with president Macron for the next couple of years.

Former president François Hollande, left, is also running in the legislative elections for the New Popular Front bloc
Former president François Hollande, left, is also running in the legislative elections for the New Popular Front bloc - PASCAL LACHENAUD/AFP

Prime minister Attal has pointed out that the man who wants his job, Jordan Bardella, is already equivocating about his key manifesto pledge to reverse the rise in retirement age. It was this issue that provoked mass protests and almost brought down the government. Macron was forced to invoke the president’s rarely used constitutional power to overrule the National Assembly. Once in office Bardella may not want to reopen such a divisive debate — especially as the rising cost of state pensions is astronomical.

Even more importantly, what would a nationalist government do about Russia’s war in Ukraine? In the last presidential election in 2022, Macron was able to destroy Le Pen by accusing her of being in hock to the Kremlin, because her party had borrowed money from Russia. Those loans were paid off, but it is undeniable that the nationalists remain soft on Putin. They see themselves as the peace party and would obstruct Macron’s policy of stepping up aid to Zelensky — let alone sending French troops to Ukraine.

A triumph for Putin

The French constitution gives ultimate control of foreign policy to the president, but if the French electorate imposes a National Rally government on Macron, this will be seen abroad as a triumph for Putin. Is it possible that, under a cohabitation with Bardella, the president might revert to his earlier posture as a peacemaker? That would be another win for Putin.

If the Left is too discredited and the centre cannot hold, could anything else stop the nationalist juggernaut? One answer is: the French electoral system. While Le Pen’s party is on an upward trajectory, so far no poll has given it more than 34 per cent, with the Left on 28 per cent and Macron’s centrists on 18 per cent.

The complex two-round system for the National Assembly means that after the first ballot on June 30, only candidates who win 12.5 per cent of the votes go through to the second round on July 7. Those who don’t make it may offer to “lend” their votes to those who do – but voters may have their own ideas. Many will care less about who gets in than about keeping Le Pen out. Macron is counting on a second-round “Republican Front” to stop her.

With such tactical voting, the National Rally could end up as the largest party but short of a majority. As it has ruled out a coalition, a Left-of-centre government could emerge. France could vote Bardella, but get Glucksmann.

That would certainly not reflect the mood of the country – especially outside Paris and a few other cities. If the result of the election is that the country moves Right but the government moves Left, then angry citizens will take to the streets en masse – on both sides. And then anything can happen.

By the time France celebrates Bastille Day on July 14, we will know whether this election is merely the prologue to an even bigger drama: a new French revolution – a revolution of the Right.