France's president called a surprise election. The result could diminish his power in world affairs

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron could awake — if he has slept at all — with clipped wings on Monday morning.

The high-stakes second round of the legislative election on Sunday will almost certainly impact the French leader’s sway in the areas of defense and foreign affairs. It could diminish his role as an energetic and influential figure in European and world affairs and as one of Ukraine’s primary backers in the war against Russia, say retired French military officers and analysts of France’s defense and foreign policies.

After the centrist president’s bloc finished a distant third, behind the surging far right, in last weekend’s first round of voting for a new parliament, one of the only certainties before Sunday’s decisive round two is that Macron himself can’t emerge strengthened.

With many of its candidates already out of the race, Macron’s camp can’t secure the absolute majority that gave him ample maneuvering room in his first term as president from 2017. It also is likely to fall well short of the 245 seats it won after his reelection in 2022. That made it the largest single group — albeit without a clear majority — in the outgoing National Assembly that Macron dissolved on June 9, triggering the surprise election after the far right handed his alliance a painful beating in French voting for the European Parliament.

That leaves two outcomes most likely to emerge on Sunday night to Monday as official results come in.

In one scenario, France could end up with a fragmented parliament and a prime minister too weak to seriously undermine Macron’s constitutionally guaranteed role as head of the armed forces and, more broadly, unable or unwilling to majorly challenge his defense and foreign-policy powers. Still, even in this best-case scenario for Macron, France risks becoming inward-looking, more focused on its polarized and unstable domestic politics than its place and military activities in the world.

In a second scenario, a worst case for Macron, the far right could secure an historic victory on Sunday that saddles the president with Jordan Bardella as prime minister, in an awkward and possibly conflictual power-sharing arrangement. The 28-year-old Bardella is a protege of Marine Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Rally party, with Bardella as its president. Both Le Pen and Bardella have made clear that, in power, they would seek to rein in Macron and exert themselves in defense, European and foreign affairs decision-making.

The French Constitution only gives limited answers to how the various scenarios might play out. In large part, it could depend on the personalities of those involved and their ability to compromise, French analysts say.

Although the constitution says the president is commander in chief, it also says the prime minister “is responsible for national defense.”

During the campaign, Bardella laid out what he said would be “my red lines” with regards to Ukraine, if he ends up sharing power with Macron: No more French deliveries of long-range weaponry that Ukraine could use to strike targets in Russia and no sending of troops, a scenario that Macron floated this year. Bardella said he doesn’t want nuclear-armed France to be drawn into direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia. His party has historically been close to Russia and Le Pen cultivated ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin for many years and supported Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Who would have the final word in potential arguments over long-range weapons for Kyiv is “actually quite a tricky one,” says François Heisbourg, a French analyst on defense and security questions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The president can probably do it if he wanted to, but the prime minister could also state that he can prevent the president from doing so,” he says. “It can become a deadlock.”

“If they don’t agree, they can actually prevent each other from doing anything.”

Power-sharing isn’t new to France. But in previous cases, the president and prime minister weren’t as sharply opposed politically as Macron and Bardella.

“Nobody until now has tried to test these respective powers to their ultimate conclusion. This is completely uncharted territory,” Heisbourg says.

On military affairs, Le Pen has already delivered a warning shot, calling Macron’s role as commander in chief “an honorary title for the president since it’s the prime minister who holds the purse strings.” Macron retorted: “What arrogance!”

French retired Vice Adm. Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s center for higher military studies, is concerned that what he describes as the constitutional “blur” about shared military responsibilities could ripple through the ranks of the country’s armed forces.

Conflictual power-sharing could be “something extremely painful for the armies, to know who the armies will obey. Very painful, very difficult,” he says.

“In any case, the president of the republic can no longer take personal initiatives, like launching a (military) operation, etc., because that requires an understanding with the prime minister.”

Because the French military operates across the globe, with forces deployed on the eastern flank of the NATO alliance, in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, changes to its posture by a power-sharing government are sure to be scrutinized by France’s international network of allies and partners.

“They will all ask, ‘But what is happening? How will this evolve? What will become of France? Will France keep its commitments?’” Olhagaray says.

But analysts say France’s nuclear forces shouldn’t be impacted. The president holds the nuclear codes, not least to ensure that the arsenal remains credible as a deterrent by making sure that potential enemies understand that any decision to strike isn’t taken by committee.

If no clear majority emerges for any single bloc from Sunday’s voting, lawmakers may have to do something that’s not a tradition in France: build a coalition government. Because the prime minister at its head will need broad consensus in parliament to keep the government from falling, that person is more likely to be a weakened junior partner in sharing power with Macron.

“The president will have much more control,” says retired Gen. Dominique Trinquand, a former head of France’s military mission at the United Nations.

In a coalition government, consensus-building on tough foreign policy questions — such as whether to greatly boost aid to Ukraine — could take time, and issues that divide might be put on the back burner.

“The room to maneuver would be narrowed,” says Frédéric Charillon, a professor of political science at Paris Cité University.

“In France, we are much more used to this kind of, you know, presidential system of monarchic foreign policy, when the president says, ‘I will do this, I will do that.’”

But in the power-sharing arrangement with a new prime minister that now awaits Macron, “It cannot work like that.”

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