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France's Macron wanted to leave his mark on Europe — he may have just ruined his legacy

Sebastien Salom-gomis | Afp | Getty Images
  • French President Emmanuel Macron's failed snap election gamble is likely to take a huge toll on his political ambitions and legacy, analysts say.
  • It's also likely to weaken the power and influence he has sought to build in Europe in recent years.
  • The final round of a snap parliamentary election in France last weekend saw a surprise win for the left-wing New Popular Front alliance, thwarting an expected victory for the far-right National Rally.
  • Center-right Macron now faces the prospect of having to work with a coalition or technocratic government — and prime minister — of a different political ilk.

French President Emmanuel Macron's failed snap election gamble is likely to take a large toll on his political ambitions and legacy, analysts say — and to weaken the power and influence he has sought to build in Europe in recent years.

The final round of a snap parliamentary election in France last weekend — called by Macron after his center-right party was trounced in recent European Parliament elections — led to a surprise win for the left-wing New Popular Front alliance, thwarting an expected victory for the far-right National Rally party.

Center-right Macron, who will remain in office until 2027, now faces the prospect of having to work with a coalition or technocratic government — and a prime minister — of a different political ilk, likely from the left-wing NFF. This is set to make governing France, the passing of legislation and reforms, potentially difficult.

Not only did Macron's high-stakes gamble with the snap poll not pay off, analysts note, but the French head of state has damaged his political standing and legacy in Europe, where he has sought a key leadership role.

"In terms of his legacy, he will be in for a real political fight," Tina Fordham, founder of Fordham Global Foresight, told CNBC on Monday.

"Macron remains the towering figure and kingmaker. It will be him who chooses the prime minister, it'll be Macron that travels to Washington for the 75th [anniversary] NATO summit this week, but those who are suggesting that his gamble paid off [are wrong]," Fordham said on CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe."

"Yes, he was able to keep the far right from first place but they've increased their seat share — and now he has to deal with this unruly left and this unruly right," she added.

"I'm afraid it probably does [weaken him on a global stage] at a time which is unfortunate for the cohesion of the European Union," she added.

Macron looked to be the EU's leader

Since taking office in 2017 after the departure of his former boss, then-Socialist President Francois Hollande, Macron has tried to position himself at the center of Europe's political decision-making — particularly since the departure of the European Union's most central leader, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in 2021.

Macron has pushed for closer political and economic integration in the EU, promoting the concept of European sovereignty, economic security and competitiveness, as well as pushing for a more integrated and autonomous European defense strategy that advocates for a "true, European army."

He's credited with creating the European Political Community, bringing leaders from across 50 states in the region to discuss shared challenges and to coordinate joint responses. Macron has also been a staunch supporter of Ukraine, putting pressure on a seemingly more reluctant Germany — and on fellow NATO members — when it came to the supply of Western weapons to Kyiv for it to fight back against Russia.

He even pitched the possibility of French troops helping on the ground, albeit controversially, going beyond other allies' pledges.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy react after signing an agreement, February 16, 2024 at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. 
Pool | Via Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy react after signing an agreement, February 16, 2024 at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. 

Only time will tell what France's political makeup will be in the coming months, but the country is likely to experience weeks of political wrangling and potential deadlock as the left-wing faction angles itself to lead a new government, and to place one of its own politicians as prime minister.

Although the decision lies in Macron's hands, he is likely to come under pressure to select a PM from the left-wing bloc, given it won the largest number of seats in the vote. He might even come under pressure to select Hollande, who ran for the NFP and stands as a strong candidate.

For now, Macron has rejected his current Prime Minister Gabriel Attal's resignation and on Monday asked him to stay in the post "to ensure the country's stability."

Political instability in France, the euro zone's second-largest economy after Germany, does not come at a good time in the global political cycle, Ludovic Subran, chief economist at Allianz, told CNBC on Monday. Subran stressed that it was vital that Macron was aligned with the future prime minister.

"France is not that weak now, but it is not very good because we are in a state-craft situation with the U.S. and China and imagine what could happen in November if [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump gets reelected — we're going to be tested and tested again and again," Subran told CNBC's Charlotte Reed in Paris.

"I think it's going to be really important that Macron secures the alignment with his prime minister before he says anything in Brussels or Strasbourg," Subran said. "He'll have to make sure there's a paper-thin divide between he and his prime minister when it comes to international issues like Russia, trade, industrial policies and working toward more flexible fiscal policies for France and for the other member countries in Europe."

When it comes to Macron's position in Europe, Subran said it would now "be hard for him to lecture and to sow the seeds of grand projects for Europe when he's going to be weak domestically."

"If [National Rally figurehead Marine] Le Pen races to power in 2027, it's going to be a very tainted legacy," he added.

Mixed legacy

While Macron is likely to be praised in some quarters for his pro-European, pro-business and pro-trade approach in office, his legacy at home may be more mixed after this snap election — a decision seen by many as a strategic miscalculation, brought about by Macron's perceived lack of understanding of voter sentiment and, some say, his perceived arrogance.

It's a criticism he's often faced, as well as accusations of failing to understand the everyday concerns of many French citizens, particularly those living outside the main urban centers.

Mass protest movements such as the "Yellow Vest" action that emerged in 2018 were largely fueled by anger among large sectors of the population at rising fuel and living costs and economic inequality, and what they perceived to be an out-of-touch, elitist political establishment.

A police vehicle sprays water cannon at protesters during an anti-government demonstration in Paris on January 26, 2019.
NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images
A police vehicle sprays water cannon at protesters during an anti-government demonstration in Paris on January 26, 2019.

The rise of the far-right National Rally party is also symptomatic of voter concerns, rightly or wrongly, over immigration and what many supporters see as the erosion of French identity and culture.

His decision in June to call a snap election after his centrist Renaissance party was trounced in the European Parliament elections, was widely seen as a high-stakes gamble. It hasn't paid off, and France's uncertain political outlook will likely perturb France's European partners, one French political scientist told CNBC.

"Imagine the EU and international partners and allies of France. What must they think of that [decision to call a snap election]?" Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, said ahead of the final round of the election on Sunday.

"They must think, 'what an amateur. What a mistake. What a mess.' And it is a mess, which is now affecting us all. Because if France isn't able to be a reliable partner in the EU when it comes to big issues of the world ... people will not forget that it was Macron who created the situation in the first place."

French President Emmanuel Macron reviews troops that will take part in the Bastille Day parade, July 2, 2024 in Paris, France. 
Aurelien Morissard | Via Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron reviews troops that will take part in the Bastille Day parade, July 2, 2024 in Paris, France. 

He told CNBC that, in France, most people believed that Macron had, in plain English, brought about a big political mess.

"Everyone in France today, absolutely everyone — I'm yet to hear or meet someone who says it was a great idea — everyone says it's a major cock-up. It was an unnecessary gamble which badly, very badly, backfired. He didn't have an absolute majority before the dissolution [of parliament, the National Assembly] but his party was the main party in the National Assembly ... so why did he have to dissolve parliament? Only he knows why he did that."

"On a scale of political blunders. I would probably give it a 10 out of 10," Marlière said.

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