La France en march! Previewing the French Presidential Election

Thibault Renard, Getty Images

THE FIRST ROUND of the French presidential election is less than a month away. In the narrow sense, the contest is about whether the French people wish to give Emmanuel Macron a second five-year term. In a broader sense, it is about whether France will choose Europe over the nation and pluralist democracy over autocratic populism. It’s a crucial choice for France, of course, but it will also affect the future of Europe and liberal democracies there and around the world.

Whatever the outcome, the country will not be returning to the world before Macron. His surprising victory five years ago marked the end (or at least the severe disruption) of the hegemony of the traditional parties and party system in France. The socialists and the center-right conservatives failed to reach the decisive second round of the election in 2017, which featured a runoff between the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen and Macron, the man without a party. Macron won handily, partly because of the widespread disenchantment with traditional political parties, and in greater part out of fear of what Le Pen might mean for France. The once-mighty Socialist Party imploded.

Emmanuel Macron (Dursun Aydemir, Getty Images)

Macron’s tenure was bumpy. After a great deal of initial goodwill, his efforts to renovate the French social security system and reform tax and labor laws caused a great deal of turbulence, including the sudden appearance two years ago of the “gilets jaunes,” an angry, disorganized anti-government movement that caused havoc in Paris and around France. Macron was not helped by his business background and his sometimes imperious manner, which made him look (and sometimes be) out of touch. The immigration issue stayed hot, encouraging extreme right-wing parties and politicians to challenge Macron’s more tempered approach to immigration anxieties. As recently as as the summer of 2021, Le Pen was outpolling Macron. Brexit negotiations focused anti-Europe sentiment in France, pitting Macron’s steadfast loyalty to the European Union and NATO against resentment over EU regulations. As recently as late February, polls showed that the combined support for far-right candidates stood at over 30 percent of those intending to vote in the first round, with Macron’s support holding steady at roughly 25 percent.

Éric Zemmour (Christian Hartmann, Reuters)

The wild card in the run-up to the election was the sudden appearance of candidate Éric Zemmour, a former television journalist who entered the race in the fall of 2021, but who was making noise much earlier than that. Like Macron, Zemmour is a man without a party. His testy, irreverent style, his ardent nationalism, and his extreme to-the-right-of-Le Pen positions on immigration and the economy generated a good deal of excitement on the far right. His numbers rose quickly, briefly exceeding those of Le Pen, the familiar standard-bearer of the anti-immigration and nationalist far right in France. The fact that Zemmour was splitting the far right gave moderate and leftist voters and activists some comfort, but his strong showing was (and still is) deeply unnerving. In January, Zemmour was convicted on charges of inciting racial hatred relating to comments he made in 2020 on the unaccompanied children of immigrants.

And then Russia invaded Ukraine. Within a week, the pre-election polls had changed dramatically, giving Macron a five-point lift and punishing Zemmour with an equally large drop. Le Pen managed to stay about even, notwithstanding her previous chumminess with Vladimir Putin. In France as elsewhere, far-right parties have been flirting with autocratic leaders like Putin and Victor Orbán, while Marcon steadily and staunchly defended liberal democracy, the EU, and NATO. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rung alarm bells across Europe, and the far right in France is paying a price. Invasions have consequences.

Another potential factor in the various first and second-round election scenarios is the candidacy of Valérie Pécresse of the Republican party, the traditional center-right formation in France. The Republicans, too, were badly damaged in the 2017 election, partly because of last-minute corruption charges against their leader and presidential candidate, François Fillon. But under Pécresse’s somewhat surprising candidacy, the Republicans are holding steady at around 15 percent, and within striking distance of the second round. Pécresse is smart, articulate, and moderate. If she were to advance to the second round, she would eliminate the Le Pen fear factor that helped Macron in the second round in 2017. The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon also gained ground after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, notwithstanding his criticisms of NATO. But he is a very long shot to advance.

Marine Le Pen (Getty Images)

One month is a long time in any presidential election, but it’s hard to see how Macron’s surging support will change enough to make a difference. At the same time, preliminary polls pitting Macron against Le Pen in the second round indicate that she will outperform her 33 percent showing in 2017 by as much as 10 points. In France as elsewhere in Europe, the far-right continues to advance.

“France — 2022 Presidential Election Voting Intention,” Poll of Polls, Politico, March 10 2022, https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/

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Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.