The Right Rises in France

April 8, 2022, Puyloubier, France

Marine Le Pen, President and candidate of the Rassemblement National (Valery Hache/AFP)

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MONTH MAKES. In early March, polls for the first round of the French presidential election showed the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, with a wide 12-point advantage over his closest pursuer, the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The war in Ukraine had been good to Macron. His efforts to intervene in the conflict looked presidential, and his unwavering support for a united Europe appeared prescient. Macron was in his wheelhouse — diplomat, leader of Europe, actor on the world stage. By contrast, Le Pen’s history of chumminess with Vladimir Putin, and her longstanding and strident criticisms of the EU and NATO, appeared to be heavy liabilities in the sudden glare of Russia’s aggression.

Until they weren’t. On the eve of the first round of the presidential election on April 10, the most recent polls show a worrisome decline in Macron’s standing — down three points to 27 percent of likely voters — and an elevation of Le Pen’s, up from 17.5 percent to 24.5 percent. Everyone seems to agree that Le Pen is in striking distance of either a victory in the first round or a very strong second-place finish, giving her a real chance in the decisive second round on April 24, where she and Macron will most likely vie for the ultimate prize.

What happened? Though the vast majority of French voters remain deeply disturbed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the halo effect that Macron enjoyed at the start of the war has dissipated. Older, deep-seated worries about the cost of living, especially in the energy sector, have replaced the initial shock of war. In this more mundane context, Macron’s external focus has become a liability. By contrast, Le Pen has conveyed folksy compassion for the financial worries of ordinary people, a stark contrast to Macron’s perceived distance from daily life.

Because there are 12 candidates competing for votes in the first round, it’s important to place these numbers in context. When Le Pen’s share of the projected vote is combined with that of candidates Eric Zemmour (8 percent) and Nicolas Dupont-Aignon (2 percent), the extreme right’s position is even more impressive — roughly 35 percent of the projected vote. When Macron’s share is combined with that of the moderate conservative Valérie Pécresse, support for the center and center-right increases to roughly 34 percent. In other words, a dead heat.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, radical left candidate of La France Insoumise (AFP-Sebastien Salom-Gomis)

The wild card in all of this is the left-leaning side of the electorate, represented by the radical left candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (16.5 percent) and David Roussel of the French Communist Party (3 percent), extreme-left candidates Nathalie Artaud and Philippe Poutou (2 percent), and the more moderate left Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hildago (2 percent). The Écologistes Yannick Jadot is currently projected to receive 4 percent of first-round votes. It seems likely that most Écologistes and Socialist Party voters will swing to Macron in the second round, as they did in 2017 when the fear of a Le Pen victory mobilized nearly every part of the left. But this time, the second-round behavior of radical-left and extreme-left voters loyal to Mélenchon, Roussel, Arthaud, and Poutou is not so clear. Polling suggests that abstentions in this part of the electorate may be very high, owing in part to the dislike of Macron, who is no longer an unknown. In addition, there is concern that some part of Mélenchon’s and Roussel’s working-class supporters may support Le Pen, in light of her cultivation of class resentments and her somewhat softened but still archly conservative stance on immigration. When voters are asked whom they are likely to support in a second-round face-off between Le Pen and Macron, fully 47 percent indicate that they will vote for Le Pen, against 53 percent who say they’ll support Macron. Even if Macron narrowly prevails in that contest, the extreme-right will have achieved a level of support unprecedented in modern French political history.

Meanwhile, other dynamics observed in the 2017 election have matured. The Socialist Party and the moderately conservative Republicans — two mainstays of French politics over the last 50 years — continue to implode. In 2017, social democratic and moderate conservative voters owned 26 percent of the first-round vote, a catastrophic drop compared to 2012. This time they are projected to win a mere 11 percent of the first-round vote, continuing the stunning collapse of these two major political parties. And for the first time since 1969, the French Communist Party may win a greater share of the vote than the Socialist Party, which a mere 10 years ago won both the presidential and legislative elections. The national politics of France are increasingly defined by the political extremes and a large block of poorly organized moderate voters with weak attachments to political parties.

Storefront window, Marseille, France, April 7, 2022

In 2016, Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College in the U.S. presidential election was due in large part to the support of white men without college degrees. In an earlier time, a large number of those men would have voted for the Democratic Party, which by tradition was the party of what is now known in France as the “popular classes” (les classes populaires). But Trump successfully wooed these formerly Democratic voters to the Republican Party by appealing to class, racial, and ethnic divides and resentments. There are many ways in which contemporary French and American politics are dissimilar, but the irony of the migration of some elements of the popular classes away from social democratic parties and candidates and into the arms of the extreme right is something that each country is encountering in significant albeit slightly different ways. That migration may prove decisive in the second round of the French presidential election on April 24.

Sources

Election présidentielle: le tableau de bord, des parrainages, sondages et temps de parole, Le Monde, 8 Avril, 2022

Poll of Polls, Politico, April 8, 2022

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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.