France will hold snap elections just weeks before the Paris Olympics

Paris (AFP) - Snap French parliamentary elections called just weeks before the start of the Paris Olympics are “extremely unsettling”, the city’s mayor said on Monday, as political turmoil emerged as an unexpected risk to the July-August Games.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was dissolving the national assembly on Sunday after results from European parliamentary polls showed major gains for the far-right.

“Like a lot of people I was stunned to hear the president decide to do a dissolution (of parliament),” Anne Hidalgo said Monday during a visit to a school outside of Paris with the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach.

Hidalgo said she was “worried” by the election results and acknowledged that Macron, a domestic rival, “could not continue as before”.

“But all the same, a dissolution just before the Games, it’s really something that is extremely unsettling,” the 64-year-old Socialist added.

Macron announced the two-round parliamentary elections on June 30 and July 7, with the Paris Olympics set to begin less than three weeks later on July 26 in the presence of more than 100 heads of state.

The vote could lead to political instability if no party wins a majority, or a seismic change if the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen emerges as the biggest party nationally and enters government.

Rumours in Paris had previously suggested Macron might dissolve parliament after the Games, with the 46-year-old head of state possibly eyeing a bounce in the polls if the Games were deemed a success.

Hidalgo stressed that from an operational perspective the elections would not affect the Games, a message echoed by IOC chief Bach.

Bach said the elections were “a democratic process which will not disturb the Olympics”.

“France is used to doing elections and they are going to do them once again. We will have a new government and a new parliament and everyone is going to support the Olympics,” Bach said.

- Divided country -

The Paris Games are set to begin with an unprecedented open-air ceremony on the river Seine on July 26, the first time the opening festivities for a Summer Olympics have taken place outside the main stadium.

Organisers have consistently talked up their ambitions, promising “iconic” Games that will see the world’s biggest sports event play out against the historic backdrop of the City of Light.

Worries so far had focused on security arrangements for the opening ceremony, or whether the river Seine would be cleaned up in time to hold the open-water swimming events and triathlon as expected.

Repeated strike threats from trade unions have also cast a shadow over preparations, as did public feuding over the choice of music for the opening ceremony and the official poster – indicators of France’s starkly divided political class.

“What worries me the most is what might happen after the elections,” Paul Dietschy, a history professor and sports specialist at the Universite of Franche-Comte in France, told AFP.

In the event of a far-right government, he saw the risk of protests and even a return of clashes between the far-right and far-left, which were a feature of French political life post-war.

“You could end up with a very tense political situation, with political violence,” he added.

IOC chief Bach “is obviously not going to say that he is worried, but he almost certainly is,” Dietschy added.

Anti-immigration and far-right parties led by Le Pen’s National Rally won almost 40 percent of the vote in the European parliament election on Sunday, inflicting heavy defeat on Macron’s centrist allies.

- New cabinet -

The snap parliamentary elections raise question marks over the government that will be in place when the Games begin, with ministers such as transport and interior set to play key roles during the event.

“For the preparations, the installations are ready, accreditations have been sent, plans put in place for transport: everything is primed,” Jean-Loup Chappelet, an Olympics expert at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, told AFP.

He also played down the impact of any personnel changes in the cabinet.

“Nothing will change between now and July 8 in the preparations of the Games and afterwards it will be absolutely too late to change anything,” he added.