A superficial look at the French electoral map might lead us to say that there is nothing new under the sun in the run-up to the French presidential elections. We are heading towards a return match between Marine Le Pen of the extreme right and incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who claims to represent “the left and the right” but who heads a coalition of centrists.
The president seems likely to win according to the opinion polls, albeit by a small margin. The downfall of France’s traditional political parties is not new, but its acceleration has been stunning, even if more or less expected.
However, a closer look at the electoral map leads to a different conclusion. We could be heading towards a major, and very disturbing, surprise. The only “almost certain” thing is that Macron will reach the second round of the elections. Le Pen should be able to make it too, but a third man, the mercurial leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could be the surprise.
We cannot exclude a scenario in which many leftist voters decide they will not vote for their preferred candidate but only for the one who has a chance of reaching the second round. (There are six leftist candidates in the elections, five of them scoring less than five per cent of the vote in the opinion polls.) If this happens, Mélenchon may be able to outscore Le Pen, despite the six per cent difference between them.
This is improbable, but we cannot rule it out. Much more important are the dynamics of the race between the frontrunners. In the 2017 elections, Le Pen started the race with very high scores in the polls but inexorably lost ground and voters. After the first round, her TV debate with Macron was disastrous, and the vote for her collapsed. Even so, 35 per cent of French voters still opted for her.
This time round, things look different. Le Pen has had a difficult start, and she has had to ponder how to deal with the Zemmour factor. Eric Zemmour is another strong candidate from the extreme right and is much more hawkish. Le Pen has opted for a rightist strategy and has started gaining ground, constantly improving her standing.
Macron, on the other hand, seems to have mishandled his campaign. He had a comfortable score at the start, and the Ukraine war has strengthened his position due to what the British call the “Falklands factor,” named after then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s success in the polls following the 1982 Falklands War.
But Macron’s decision to delay the start of his campaign, waiting for the very last moment, has backfired. It has given credence to the accusation that he does not want a debate because his achievements during his first term have not been that impressive. This is probably unfair, Macron being a formidable debater, but it has hurt.
The French senate, controlled by the right, has also unleashed a surprise in the shape of a report denouncing the unhealthy proximity between the US management consultants McKinsey and Macron’s team. His score in the opinion polls went down by three or four per cent and has now stalled as a result, though it remains high. Yet, Macron seems to be unable to find proposals that are popular with the voters.
Le Pen has decided that she should not try to compete with Zemmour on immigration, Islam, and security. Her name and her party guarantee her hawkishness. Trying to outplay an extremist competitor on that kind of playing field would compromise her efforts to look like a “normal” candidate. Instead, she has focused from the beginning on the need to protect the purchasing power of the poor and lower middle classes. Most of her voters have that kind of social background. This decision has turned out to be prescient, as the war in Ukraine has caused a general rise in energy and wheat prices.
Le Pen has also tried to look responsible, and she has not criticised Macron’s handling of the Ukraine crisis. She has tried to assess the cost of her proposals in a way that looks plausible: they are not, but the average voter is not an economic expert. She has also tried to present herself as a kind of anti-Macron: he presents himself as knowing everything and crushes his opponents with his mastery of different issues. She, on the other hand, looks nice, modest, and friendly.
Macron presents himself as a “Jupiter” on the heights of Mount Olympus, governing from above and from a distance. Le Pen is close to the people, touring France and organising smaller and larger meetings.
Macron has a solid electoral basis of around a quarter of the electorate. But the polls suggest that two-thirds of this base do not like him or his programme, instead considering him to be the best candidate and above the rest of the field. This is Macron’s main asset: that his opponents are considered to be second or third-league players. He can also claim that he has handled the Covid-19 pandemic in an efficient way. His critics can point to a lot of bad choices, however, and say that the fact he has often reversed course proves that he is aware he has erred.
The collapse of France’s traditional mainstream parties, the Republicans and Socialists, is impressive and deserves analysis. The Republicans are faring better, but their 2017 candidate secured only 20 per cent of the vote, and their candidate this year may not even score 10 per cent. The Socialists’ plight is even more impressive: their candidate is struggling to cross the two per cent threshold.
In fact, these parties are coalitions of moderates and hawks. An impressive number of moderates have joined Macron, and many of the hawks have preferred more radical forces. In this difficult situation, these parties have opted for a strategy of soft radicalisation that has backfired. With the benefit of hindsight, trying to seduce the moderates would have been a better choice.
The main problem is that Macron’s choice of a shortening of the campaign combined with the Covid-19 related restrictions and the overwhelming weight of the Ukraine war has had consequences. In a very serious situation, with a lot of old crises and an impressive number of new ones, there has not been serious debate, and the voters do not really know what the competitors are proposing.
The president of the French Senate, the rightist Vincent Larcher, has said that the result is that the next president of France will not be considered legitimate, as there has been no real campaign and no real race. As a result, the next president may well be unable to undertake much-needed reforms.
This is only one aspect of the run-up to the elections. We may be heading towards a major surprise if Le Pen’s rise does not stop. Even if she is cautious now, it is clear that she is not a fan of the EU or NATO. Her economic policies do not look sound. All the candidates have proposed a lot of costly solutions to the crisis in France, but all of them have also omitted to say how they will fund them. This is especially the case for Le Pen and Mélenchon.
Nothing guarantees that the next French president will be able to secure a majority in the following legislative elections. Macron’s party has a grassroots problem, and Le Pen is a polarising figure.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.