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French President Emmanuel Macron attends a trilateral meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (not seen) at the Elysee Palace in Paris as part of the Chinese president’s two-day state visit in France, May 6, 2024.

Gonzalo Fuentes | Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap election after the far-right National Rally party won more than double the votes of his centrist alliance has been greeted with surprise, dismay and more than a little bewilderment.

It has also resurfaced long-standing criticism of Macron, particularly from political commentators and opponents, who see the president as arrogant, ego-driven and, perhaps more worryingly in their eyes, a leader willing to put France’s stability on the line in what’s being seen as a “huge political gamble.”

For his part, Macron said that holding a snap election would provide clarity after the European Parliament elections, in which the NR party won around 31% of the vote, more than double the 14.6% for the centrist, pro-European alliance that included Macron’s Renaissance Party.

In a national address Sunday evening as he announced his decision to dissolve parliament, Macron told the electorate that he had “heard” their concerns and would “not leave them unanswered … France needs a clear majority to act in serenity and harmony,” he added. The first round of voting will take place on June 30, with a second to be held on July 7.

Analysts said Macron’s decision was likely a tactical gamble, with the president hopeful that 1) the European parliamentary election drubbing was the result of a protest vote rather than deeper dissatisfaction with his leadership and 2) that the prospect of a far-right power grab will mobilize the centrist electorate to vote for his party to prevent NR from obtaining an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

He is also believed to be hoping that, even if NR performs well and he has to appoint a member of the party as prime minister (with NR leader Jordan Bardella the likely candidate for such an eventuality, known as “cohabitation” in France), the party will fail to impress voters when it has a prominent role in French politics, and will fail in the presidential election in 2027.

‘Desperate’ president, risky ‘gamble’

Some of Macron’s critics and political commentators have been less than impressed by Macron’s decision and strategy, however, with some saying it makes Macron look arrogant — an accusation leveled at him by his critics in previous years — and like a man willing to roll the dice with the country’s future.

Left-leaning newspaper Liberation described the snap election call as an “extreme gamble,” while the center-right Le Figaro ran a brief headline Monday: “Le choc” (“shock”). It continued with an editorial in which the paper’s editor-in-chief Alexis Brézet said “the earthquake was expected, the aftershock seemed unthinkable.”

Brézet warned that Macron was “taking the risk of entrusting the reins of power … to the party whose progress he had promised to stem! This unprecedented decision is, for the country, a leap into the unknown, the consequences of which are incalculable.” He suggested that Macron had decided to call a snap election because he had been personally humiliated by the EU election result, saying that as a result “Macron has decided to go all in!”

Jérôme Fenoglio, the editorial director of the popular Le Monde newspaper, was also critical of the move, describing French citizens as “the stakes” in “the risky gamble of a desperate president.”

“The problem, above all, is that the player [Macron] has lost his lead. That happened well before the humiliation of the European election results, in which Macron’s Renaissance party got less than half as many votes as the far-right Rassemblement National … The campaign merely concentrated this mixture of arrogance and clumsiness, which disgusts many voters ready to turn to a protest vote,” Fenoglio wrote Monday.

He described the Élysée Palace’s “initial explanations … to justify this dissolution, a mixture of bluff and self-persuasion.” In the meantime, other commentators and newspapers, such as Les Echos, have characterized Macron’s move as a game of poker.

CNBC has contacted the Élysée Palace for a response to the comments and is awaiting a reply.

‘Personal and institutional’ reasons

The adage goes that it takes years to build a good reputation and minutes to shatter it. Macron has been accused of elitism, obnoxiousness and arrogance during his presidency.

Fordham: Fallout from European elections will be contained to France

In 2017, an expensively suited Macron courted controversy by describing opponents of his labor reforms as “slackers” (it became a rallying cry for protestors) and being seen to be out of touch with voters’ concerns over immigration, housing and the cost of living. He has been accused frequently of being a defender of the wealthy and a “president of the rich,” an accusation that fueled the “yellow-vest” protests of 2018 and 2019. Macron’s supporters defend the president as a self-made and ambitious man who has a direct way of speaking to voters.

Whether it’s deserved or not, Macron’s reputation for arrogance has been hard to shake. Robert Ladrech, emeritus professor of European politics at Keele University, told CNBC Monday that Macron’s latest election call “could be seen as arrogant for two reasons — [both] personal and institutional.”

“First, he has interpreted the vote for the European Parliament as a personal insult, as a rejection of his domestic policy direction. His immigration policy had already ‘hardened’ recently, and he mentioned last year that perhaps a ‘pause’ in EU climate policy would be good. Both of these nods to the RN electorate appear to have had no impact, if indeed the vote was a referendum on him,” he noted.

“Second, a French president has before dissolved parliament only a couple of years into its mandate to call fresh elections, conservative [former] President Chirac in 1997, hoping to enlarge his majority. He blew it big, forced to ‘co-habit’ with a left-wing prime minister, Jospin. So, either way, it is a gamble on Macron’s part — arrogance if he thinks he can ‘win’, and arrogance if he thinks a win for the RN may take the wind out of its sails by the 2027 presidential election.”

French snap election 'akin to the Brexit vote,' Allianz economist says

Macron’s political opponents are less than impressed — apart, of course, from NR itself, which has been buoyed by its boost in the parliamentary elections and has welcomed the chance to increase its share of the vote. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she was “stunned” by Macron’s decision.

“Like a lot of people I was stunned to hear the president decide to do a dissolution (of parliament),” she said of Macron’s surprise announcement Sunday, calling the decision to do it just weeks ahead of the Paris Olympic Games as “extremely unsettling.”

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