The French Presidential election: final round

A crucial vote for the French Presidency: the French tricolor. Jeremy Bezanger: https://unsplash.com/photos/z5LSLMVsTAI

One of the reasons I settled in Sussex after ten years living and working on the continent, was the ease of access to France which the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry provides. I am therefore very fortunate to be writing this in Normandy, where the arrival of the spring blossom, as captured spectacularly by David Hockney in 2020, is always a delight. At present, however, France stands at a political crossroads, as it prepares for the second round of the Presidential election on 24 April.  

First round voting

The first round of voting, with 12 candidates in total, took place on 10 April, and resulted in the same line up of finalists as in 2017 – namely Emmanuel Macron, the current centrist President, and Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the former leader of the Front National (now re-named Rassemblement National (RN) or National Rally).  In the 2017 run-off, Macron beat Le Pen by 66% to 34%.  The outcome of the second round in 2022, however, is likely to be much closer.

On 10 April, Macron came top with almost 28% of the vote, and Le Pen second with 23%. The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon came third with 22% and another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, a more vociferous critic of immigration than even Le Pen, followed with 7.1%.  Green issues were notably absent from the campaign, with the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, failing to reach 5% of the national vote.

The result for Macron was better than it seemed, as it was the highest first-round score attained by any incumbent since 1988, and almost four points more than he got in 2017 in the first round.  Nevertheless, the combined vote of all the populist, radical and extremist candidates was almost 58%, a significant increase from just below 50% in the first round in 2017.  

The role of the left-wing and far right

In the final round this time, the disposition of Melenchon’s voters will be crucial.  The 70-year-old has been described as a Corbyn-like figure, and on election night, he asked his supporters not to give a “single vote” to Marine Le Pen.  Other unsuccessful candidates from the Republicans, the Greens and the Socialists have also voiced support for Macron, in order to keep Le Pen out. Many of their supporters are, however, vehemently anti-establishment and lean towards Le Pen’s protectionist economic policies and her brand of anti-immigration Eurosceptic nationalism, so they may make their own decisions, or possibly abstain.

During the first round debates, the presence of the even more extreme far-right anti-immigration candidate, Eric Zemmour, allowed Le Pen to attempt to sweeten her “national priority” policies which would threaten the country’s democratic institutions, its diplomacy, and the lives of French Muslims and immigrants (for example, by banning the Muslim women’s hijab, or headscarf).  

Macron has lost popularity since he took office: protestors in Paris in 2019. Ev: https://unsplash.com/photos/8XBd6tWkleQ

Changes to Le Pen’s policies

Le Pen has also tried to distance herself from her pro-Russian past, now saying she wants closer NATO-Russia ties, “once the war between Russia and Ukraine is over and resolved with a peace treaty.”  

Although she has dropped her previous demands to leave the Euro and the EU, her policies have been called “Frexit in all but name” and “the national priority” policies for French citizens in employment, social security benefits and public housing would be incompatible with EU values and free movement rules.  The parallels with Boris Johnson’s Brexit and immigration policies are clear.

Since the first-round result, the challenger has started to come under more robust scrutiny and polls are already showing the gap is widening in Macron’s favour.

Problems facing Macron

Whilst this may sound reassuring to those of us hoping to see the liberal, pro-European President re-elected, Macron’s success in building a broad centrist platform has presided over the collapse of the former mainstream parties, namely the Socialists and the Republicans on the left and right, who between them gained only 7% of the vote, compared to 26% in 2017.  This reflected the deep discontent of voters in run-down former industrial cities and rural areas, who feel themselves economically disadvantaged.  

Le Pen is now seeking to exploit the cost of living crisis, which is feeding the forces of nationalism and populism which have already been in evidence in the UK and also the US in recent years, even before the energy price crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.  

By the same author:

High stakes

The stakes, are of course, incredibly high.  A Le Pen presidency would hold a referendum on immigration that would assert the primacy of French over European law, and would fundamentally threaten the unity of the EU at a time when war is being waged on its Eastern border.  Le Pen has been an avowed supporter of both Putin and Trump, as well as Viktor Orban in Hungary.  She is also anti-NATO.  Elsewhere in Europe, a Le Pen victory would encourage the hard right, for example in Italy, which is due to hold an election next year. 

Like all populists, Le Pen is promising ‘jam tomorrow’.  Income tax would be scrapped for everyone under 30, and interest-free loans of up €100,000 would be offered to young families, with the debt wiped out if they had three children.  

Macron, having started late in the first round because of the war in Ukraine, is fighting the second round on economic policies which have successfully fostered a more dynamic labour market, and new business creation, helping to reduce unemployment to about 7%, the lowest levels in France since 2008.  

Another strength is his reputation for competence in times of crisis, such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.  However, at a time when prices are rocketing, when many amongst the French electorate feel disaffected and left-behind, it remains to be seen whether his record on social policies will be deemed sufficient to deliver his re-election on 24 April. 

Follow @SussexBylines on social media