Barricades, betrayal and bust-ups: Macron triggers a wild week in French politics

Damond Isiaka
9 Min Read

Paris
CNN
 — 

Alliances brokered and canceled, leaders defenestrated and besieged, and cries of “betrayal” and “shame” echoing across the airwaves: It was almost Shakespearean.

This week saw the wildest week France’s right-wing has had in decades.

The saga began Sunday night, with a stunning victory for the far right in European parliamentary elections, bagging some 40% of the vote in France. French President Emmanuel Macron promptly turned the country on its head by announcing a snap legislative election.

“I just don’t want to give the keys to the far right in 2027 (in France’s next presidential election),” he said this week in justifying his huge gamble on the surprise vote.

After topping the European poll, there’s been widespread speculation that the National Rally, the party of far-right doyenne Marine Le Pen and her youthful acolyte Jordan Bardella, could at least become the kingmaker of the country’s next government, if not lead it, unseating Macron’s own centrist bloc.

Macron is safe as president until 2027, but he’s facing the possibility of a government led and staffed by far-right ministers: hardly calm-inducing thoughts for him.

But the far right’s success has thrown the French political right off balance, with almost comic results.

Within days, one leader on the right would be barricaded inside his HQ, another abandoned by all but one of his newly elected lawmakers. In the struggle for favor with the far right, the knives were out.

Marine Le Pen addresses her supporters alongside National Rally President Jordan Bardella during an event on Sunday following the European elections.

Locked inside

Fast forward to Tuesday, and Eric Ciotti, president of The Republicans – long the main party on France’s political right – announced a surprise coalition with Le Pen’s far-right party.

His thinking, as outlined, was measured: “The country has never been so right-wing,” he said. “The country expects right-wing actions.”

The reaction from his colleagues was anything but.

“Selling your soul for a plate of lentils and making it look like the country’s best interest,” was how his fellow Republican Valerie Pecresse put it.

Cries of “shame” were slung towards him from other past and present Republican colleagues online.

After decades in the traditional mainstream, which prided itself on the so-called “cordon sanitaire” protecting the seats of French power from the far right via tactical alliances, The Republicans, led by Ciotti, found themselves on the periphery, winning just over 7% of the vote 

With the far right on the rise, Ciotti saw a path to relevance.

His party disagreed.

In the maelstrom of outrage at his “deal with the devil” (as the French President termed it), party figures called to excommunicate him from the party.

His defiance will go down in French political history: locking himself inside the party’s headquarters to try to stymie them.

Eric Ciotti addresses the media as he leaves his party's headquarters in Paris on Thusrday.

Cue a procession of party leaders marching to unseat him. Most memorable was president of the Paris area’s regional council, theatrically rolling up her sleeves amid a swarm of journalists as she advanced on Ciotti’s holdout.

Meanwhile, francophone social media was ablaze with memes depicting police SWAT teams or hostage negotiators ousting Ciotti.

The reality was a little less climactic: His colleagues found spare keys to unlock the door.

By Wednesday evening, Ciotti had been kicked out of the party, with its secretary general blasting the “unholy alliance” with the far right, echoing Macron’s own attack.

But the now supposedly ex-leader of the party went down swinging, issuing a press statement in the name of The Republicans condemning the leadership meeting as illegitimate and “with no legal standing.”

“I am and remain the president of our political formation, elected by our members,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter.

On Thursday morning, he tweeted a video of himself sitting at his desk, overlaid with a dramatic Hollywood-esque soundtrack: an overt rejection of his ousting from the party.

This would-be coup did the 21st century proud: The putschists apparently had the party’s X account in their grip, Ciotti loyalists the party’s Facebook, the accounts posting conflicting statements as to the party’s leadership.

Vindication for Ciotti came Friday, as a French court ruled his ouster illegal.

“Justice has spoken,” he said following the verdict, “she said you can’t do whatever you want, you can’t do DIY.”

Meanwhile, at stage right …

Further right on the French political spectrum, chaos was also the order of the day, often playing out on national TV screens.

Spearheaded by Le Pen’s niece, Executive Vice President Marion Marechal, and former TV pundit Eric Zemmour, the Reconquest party clung to the coattails of National Rally, taking some 5% of the European parliamentary election vote in France. The party was only founded in 2021.

Like Ciotti, keen to ride the far-right wave of popularity to government, Marechal had since Sunday been working towards forming a formal partnership with her aunt’s party.

Zemmour seemed to disagree, his shock at Marechal’s efforts clear on his face when she announced them on national TV on Sunday night.

Apparently frustrated with his opposition, she went rogue, telling Reconquest supporters to vote for their far-right competitors.

“Let’s put the interests of France before those of the party,” she said on live TV.

Zemmour was furious. Later that day, in a television interview with BFMTV, he slammed her as a liar. “She’s beaten the world record for betrayal,” he said.

Marion Marechal addresses supporters of her party, Reconquest, alongside party president Eric Zemmour, left, on Sunday. Marechal and Zemmour have since had a falling out.

Next, he took an axe to her ties to his party, declaring Marechal, and the newly elected three European lawmakers that supported her, exiled from the party. Zemmour now cuts a lonely figure, left with one single member of the European Parliament, a pariah even within the far-right.

“I am distressed to have to comment on these internal quarrels at a time when our country is dying, at a time when hope can finally be reborn,” he lamented on X.

In his statement on X, formerly Twitter, he refuted Marechal’s accusations that he had sunk a deal with National Rally.

France leaning right?

In the wake of this chaos, Wednesday ended with one party divorced from its leader after declaring an alliance and another leader left with only a single European lawmaker for failing to do the same.

Less than two weeks out from the legislative election, called for June 30, it’s unclear how much this right-wing wrangling will affect national results.

Certainly, it plays well for Le Pen and Bardella’s National Rally. They are the unchallenged electoral muscle on the right and have so far managed to stay above the fray.

The fact of Ciotti’s endorsement, even if rejected by others in his traditionalist party, indicates how far National Rally has moved into mainstream politics.

Outwardly, National Rally’s transformation from extremists to ballot card favorites, for at least a substantial portion of French voters, is complete.

As the French right crumbles around them, for Le Pen’s party, that may be the sweetest victory yet.

Journalist Julen Chavin contributed to this report

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