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France’s week of political psychosis

Macron’s snap election call has triggered turmoil across the country as parties rush to form alliances in time for June 30

The leader of Les Républicains, Éric Ciotti (centre), addresses the media as he leaves party HQ in Paris on June 13, 2024. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty

The shock sparked by Emmanuel Macron’s snap election call, after the surge in support for Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally in the European elections, has shattered all political discipline. Parties have plunged into what is being termed “political psychosis” in the race to form coalitions and register candidates in time for the parliamentary elections on June 30 and July 7.

Éric Ciotti, a wily politician from the southern Alps and Côte d’Azur region, who is under investigation for corruption, was first out of the blocks. Ciotti is the leader of the establishment conservative Les Républicains, a party increasingly eclipsed by the far right since Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012. He stunned his leadership group and rank and file by unilaterally announcing that he was striking an alliance with the hard right party of Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella.

As Le Monde revealed, the campaign for a non-aggression pact between the Gaullist mainstream right and the Vichy-descendant National Rally was orchestrated with the backing of the billionaire Vincent Bolloré, a kind of French Rupert Murdoch. Bolloré owns populist right news outlets like CNews channel and Europe 1. Both channels received advance notice of Macron’s dissolution plans even before his own prime minister, Gabriel Attal.

Ciotti’s shock deal was immediately condemned as treason. Defiant, despite calls for his expulsion, Ciotti then proceeded to lock himself inside party headquarters in Paris’s elegant 7th arrondissement. “Fire him,” responded his feisty vice-president, Florence Portelli, on national television. “This is a poor man’s putsch,” she said. “He is trying to save his seat in Nice.” 

For the former minister Xavier Bertrand, “cynical” Ciotti had “made the choice to collaborate. He betrayed us for a position, for a constituency. Les Républicains carry the legacy of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. We must be true to our values.” 

The struggle then turned into an argument over passwords for the party’s X and Facebook accounts, as contradictory posts started appearing, and accounts were suspended and then suddenly reinstated. Portelli ridiculed Ciotti’s theatrics as pitiful. There were live TV scenes of party officials attempting and failing to get into Les Républicains’ building with copies of the keys. 

When Valérie Pécresse, president of the greater Paris Île-de-France region, marched towards the besieged HQ flipping her ash blonde bob and rolling up the sleeves of her black jacket, commentators pointed out that it was “just like in a Tarantino film”. Papal references were made after Ciotti briefly appeared to wave from the balcony window. But on Friday evening a court ruled that Ciotti’s expulsion from the party was invalid, despite a majority of the leadership and candidates rejecting his deal.

Over at the far right Reconquête! party – more of a micro-party – led by Éric Zemmour, things were no calmer. In a “violent divorce”, Zemmour expelled Marion Maréchal, who has just been elected as an MEP. Ranting on the BFMTV news channel, he claimed she had established “a world record for treason!” Her crime? Revealing on TV, to the surprise of almost no one except Zemmour, that she was rejoining aunty Marine (Le Pen’s) party. Behind closed doors, niece Marion had pleaded for a legislative union with her aunt’s party. When Zemmour and his right-hand woman Sarah Knafo MEP refused, she reportedly started screaming the word “whore” and banging on the walls, before Zemmour yelled at her to “get the hell out”.

It would be funny if the stakes for France and Europe were not so high. A G7 economy is poised to elect its first extreme right, populist-nationalist government, led by a party co-founded by a former member of the Waffen-SS.

“Since the European election results, French politics has become crazed,” said Claude Malhuret, an independent centrist senator. “On the right, the head of the Gaullist party has sold himself off to the heirs of Pétain, and locked himself inside his office like the living dead who devours himself in his own coffin. He is a marmoset perched on the shoulder of Jordan Bardella, who is giving orders”.

On the left, ex-president François Hollande surprised his own Socialist Party by declaring that he would stand in his old seat under the new “Popular Front” left wing coalition. That movement is controlled by the polarising Trotskyite and anarchist radical left, which is accused of abetting soaring antisemitism, and tolerating Islamism. 

Even so, the march of the extremes is not inevitable. A survey showed that more than two-thirds of Les Républicains voters are opposed to any broad right union ticket. Ciotti suffered a setback on Sunday when Sarkozy said he would vote for a candidate from the right who would ally with Macron’s centrist coalition. Ciotti risked becoming a “proxy” for the National Rally, said Sarkozy, a party with “deeply concerning” economic policies. 

“A major question is that Bardella has to make up for a lack of experience, since he has never been in a position to manage anything, and he is under 30,” added Sarkozy.

Emma-Kate Symons is a journalist and columnist based in Paris

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