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Opinion: Macron just laid the ultimate far-right trap

Opinion by David A. Andelman

(CNN) — In 1981, fresh off the heels of a triumphal election as France’s president, the Socialist François Mitterrand made a bold, snap decision. He invited four members of the far-left Communist Party, long a thorn in his political side, into his new cabinet.

Much of France was stunned. President Ronald Reagan was horrified and promptly sent his vice president, George H.W. Bush, racing to Paris to make sure the new leader of America’s NATO ally hadn’t lost his mind.

Following a two-hour lunch, Bush emerged into the courtyard where I was among a gaggle of reporters to pronounce his reassurance – talks were “warm and friendly” and he had every confidence in Mitterrand’s plans for his nation.

In the ensuing months, the Mitterrand government, following a blueprint established by the communist ministers — who had never held government service but were quite adept at sniping from the sidelines — nationalized a host of key industries and banks.

Baron Guy de Rothschild, who rarely met the press, gave me a tour of his bank, pointing to the chairs in his board room where his ancestors gazed down from the walls and declaimed how “communists will be sitting in these chairs.”

Eventually, these initiatives, a core of the communist gameplan, came undone. First, the costs of the program ballooned as the Constitutional Court said prices paid for the nationalized companies were too low. Inflation skyrocketed past 8%. Taxes for the vast middle class soared.

By 1983, two of the four communist ministers were gone from the government. A year later, they were all out. Finally in 1986, the nationalizations were reversed.

Mitterrand went on to notch up 14 years as president, the longest in the history of the French republic, with little further trouble from the radical left.

Years later, Mitterrand confided to me what he had told Bush that day in 1981: “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer.” Essentially: Give them enough leash, and eventually they’ll hang themselves.

That was then, this is now. From the start of Emmanuel Macron’s first presidential campaign, the far right — particularly the party of Marine Le Pen, heir to the political empire launched by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen — has been the thorn in his side.

On Sunday, that thorn could no longer be ignored. In countries across the European Union, the right was resurgent in this year’s European Parliamentary elections. While the right failed to attain absolute control over the European Parliament, their gains, especially in France and Germany, were impressive and leave them in a position for a substantially louder voice for the next five years.

In its wake, Macron called a surprise snap election after Le Pen’s National Rally snagged a third of the vote. And if there was any question why the world should care about this astonishing decision, these returns and all they suggest about voter attitudes will certainly loom over the G-7 summit happening in Italy this week, where President Joe Biden will be on his second visit to Europe in a week, following D-Day commemorations in Normandy.

And then, there’s the Olympics, with opening ceremonies less than three weeks after the French elections. With it, the risk of voters putting the right in power — and placing in jeopardy every Macron cabinet member who planned the festivities.

Why then, would Macron take this gamble? Apart from holding a handful of seats in the National Assembly, few from the French far right have ever governed, certainly not on the national stage. Instead, they hold any number of plans that from Macron’s perspective are mere fantasies with risks of ruining the nation and its economy.

Macron is likely counting on the byzantine mathematics of French politics that has three times denied Le Pen the presidency, and her father five times.

If no candidate wins 50% of the vote in a first round that is likely to have a dozen or more contenders, the top two must stand for a second round. (The same holds for every parliamentary seat, which is why there will also be two votes this time — the first round on June 30, the second on July 7.)

At no time did any Le Pen manage to win more than a third of the vote in the first round. Then in the second round with just two candidates, only in the 2022 election did Marine Le Pen barely break 40% against Macron.

Of course, Macron will not be on the ballot this time. His term runs to 2027. But even if the right manages to win control of Parliament next month, allowing Le Pen’s amanuensis, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, to take over as prime minister – Le Pen saving herself for one (last) grab for the brass ring (the presidency) in 2027 – it will be a chance to showcase the utter failings of the extreme right.

Their platform is staggering: slash immigration, ban Islamic head coverings in public, dial back renewable energy investment, lower inflation by rebating the VAT tax to consumers, expel foreigners who’ve been unemployed for more than a year, lower the retirement age back to 60, inaugurate a 20 billion euro national health plan, slash the VAT on energy to 5.5% from 20%, build six new nuclear generators and increase the security and justice budget by 1.5 billion euros a year.

All this with little sense of how to pay for it. Oh. And no restrictions any more on hunting, in Le Pen’s words, “one of France’s most ancestral traditions.”

Macron’s political judgment has always been potent. But will he be able to effectively destroy the far right as a viable force before France gets to the next presidential election?

It’ll be a rocky road getting there.

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