A close call for French democracy
France’s 24 April presidential runoff election will not be an easy ride for incumbent Emmanuel Macron. Far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is pushing him hard and has gained momentum from her first-round performance. There is a genuine possibility that one of Europe’s major powers could be led by the far right, if not this time, then the next. In a sense, Le Pen has already won, as Macron’s government and many other parties have adopted strident anti-immigration and anti-Islamic policies in response to her popularity. If Macron stays in power, he should urgently focus on building a broad coalition to address the economic and social disaffection that continues to feed extremism.
For the third time, the far right is on the ballot when France chooses between the final two presidential candidates. The 2022 runoff vote, to be held on 24 April, offers voters the same choice as 2017. Five years ago, Emmanuel Macron, leading his newly-created centrist party En Marche, easily defeated Marine Le Pen of the National Front, which went on to rebrand itself as the National Rally. Almost 20 years ago to the day, Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked the political system by getting to the runoff, before overwhelmingly losing to incumbent Jacques Chirac.
Both times before, the far-right candidate fell to a landslide defeat as a majority of voters united behind the mainstream candidate, putting aside ideology to deny the challenger power. But there are signs the situation might be different this time. The danger that a major European power could soon fall into the hands of the far right can no longer be discounted.
Cost of living concerns to the fore
Current polls give Macron a narrow lead, forecasting a victory by around 53 to 47 per cent. For the first time, a candidate facing a far-right challenger isn’t predicted as the unquestionable winner. If Macron wins, he’s highly unlikely to get anywhere close to the 66 per cent he got five years ago, which was almost double Le Pen’s vote. Disturbingly, momentum now seems to be with Le Pen, who survived a tricky start to her campaign, when she faced far-right challenger Éric Zemmour, to rise sharply in the polls in recent weeks.
While last time Macron campaigned as the fresh face determined to upset a traditional political order many were unhappy with, this time he had the much trickier proposition of running as an incumbent: it’s a time-honoured French tradition to blame the country’s powerful presidents for all ills, fairly or not. This enabled Le Pen to position herself in Macron’s former role, that of the newcomer promising change.
Macron held back until the last minute before launching his campaign. He could reasonably claim his presidential duties kept him busy: he’d been frantically travelling Europe, first to try to prevent Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and then to push for a European Union (EU) response. But it also played to deep-rooted criticism that he is arrogant and out of touch with the public. He was left chasing a campaign that everyone else had been fighting for months.
An initial poll bounce, in which Macron’s support rose to 31 per cent, evidently linked to his enhanced international profile, didn’t last. Nor was Le Pen dented by her long-running links to Putin. A campaign leaflet printed just before the invasion even featured a photo of Le Pen and Putin. Her 2017 campaign was funded by a €9 million (approx. US$9.8 million) loan from a Russian bank. But Le Pen managed to distance herself from Putin as the invasion happened and it was Zemmour – who had called for an alliance with Russia, said the country needed a ‘French Putin’ and resisted the EU’s acceptance of Ukrainian refugees – who was most damaged by his Moscow links.
Instead, the campaign was fought on Le Pen’s chosen ground: the cost of living. As in many other countries, rising fuel and food prices are hurting French people, particularly those who live away from the big cities and most rely on their cars. The anger of the gilets jaunes protest movement, sparked in 2018 by a planned fuel-tax rise, hasn’t gone away. Macron’s promise to raise the retirement age also revived an unpopular policy that sparked strikes and protests when he attempted to introduce it in 2020.
Cost of living concerns matter most to working class people, many of whom already feel marginalised from political institutions. It’s among the same people that the critique of Macron as remote and aloof resonates most strongly. There’s a natural crossover between these sentiments and those of nationalism and xenophobia: Macron emphasises his belief in the EU as a core part of his political identity, something that makes it easy to paint him as a globalist compared to Le Pen’s ‘France first’ values.
Racist politics normalised
Despite Le Pen’s evidently successful efforts to detoxify her political brand and her relentless focus on the cost of living – something that conveniently leaves her opposed to further sanctions against Russia – she still stands for the same xenophobic and racist programme her party has always embraced. Her proposals include a complete ban on Muslim headscarves, the ending of automatic French citizenship for children born in France, priority for French nationals in access to education, healthcare, jobs and welfare, and a referendum to further limit the rights of immigrants.
Once this would have been easily labelled as an extremist agenda. But what Le Pen stands for has increasingly entered the political mainstream. Zemmour’s campaign likely helped her here. A far-right commentator twice convicted of racial discrimination and racial hatred, Zemmour once seemed a danger to Le Pen, accusing her of not being hard enough on immigration. But his toxic discourse made her programme seem reasonable by comparison, further enabling Le Pen to look like a normal politician.
Macron hasn’t healed his country. Far-right narratives have continued to thrive to the point where extremism has become mainstream.
Even if Macron prevails, the damage has been done: racism, particularly Islamophobia, has become an everyday part of French politics. To try to head off Le Pen’s challenge, the government talked up its anti-Islam record, exemplified by its decision to cut the number of visas for people from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia last year, and its 2020 dissolution of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a civil society organisation that campaigned against discrimination and documented the impacts on rights of anti-terrorism measures. Macron’s interior minister went as far as accusing Le Pen of being ‘too soft’ on Islam.
Politicians competing to win the nomination of the traditionally centre-right Republicans party also lined up to stress their anti-immigration, anti-Islam credentials. The winner of that contest, Valérie Pécresse, promised a referendum on immigration, immigration quotas and walls around the EU’s perimeter, an agenda Le Pen could easily have endorsed.
The far right has changed the political climate in France. Deep distrust of political parties and a common narrative of national decline perpetuated by the far right have dragged the political centre rightward. An online ‘fascist sphere’ and right-wing ownership of key media have normalised the previously unsayable. If Le Pen chose to focus on the cost of living as her core issue, it was precisely because the ground had shifted so much since her father reached the runoff that she would have hardly stood out from the field on immigration. That battle had already been won.
Into the two-horse race
Macron is still the favourite. He not only came first but also increased his vote share, from 24 per cent in 2017 to 27.8 per cent. However, Le Pen’s vote is up too, from 21.3 per cent to 23.2 per cent. Both have contributed to and benefited from the collapse of traditional centre-right and centre-left parties.
Until 2017, most presidents had come from either Republicans/Gaullist or Socialist parties. But in 2022 the Republicans’ candidate came fifth, with a measly 4.8 of the vote, while the Socialist Party, which won the presidential election as recently as 2012, was humbled even more, finishing a distant 10th on only 1.7 per cent.
In this polarised political landscape, the only candidate to give Le Pen a run for her money was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left-wing populist party La France Insoumise, whose support rose steeply in the final weeks of the campaign. Winning the votes of many young people in particular, his campaign also spoke to people’s economic anger and disdain for established parties.
Mélenchon supporters are most strongly represented in the roughly half of first-round voters now asked to pick between two candidates they didn’t vote for. The race is on for both Macron and Le Pen to speak to disaffection across the spectrum. The intensity of the two-horse race may focus more attention on Le Pen’s failings and her links to Putin. But Le Pen can expect to receive pretty much all of Zemmour’s seven-per cent vote share. In comparison, there’s no guarantee that left or centre-right voters will back Macron just to keep Le Pen out.
If people voted for Pécresse because of her strong anti-immigration messaging, they could just as easily side with Le Pen rather than Macron. And voters on the left might abstain father than back Macron, who many see as a president of the rich, or – given that Mélenchon also strongly campaigned on the cost of living – find Le Pen speaks for them more.
No cause for celebration
Macron has signalled that he understands these dynamics by saying he will reach out to defeated candidates. Defeated centre-right, centre-left and Green candidates have called on their supporters to back Macron, but crucially Mélenchon has stopped short of this, only calling on his voters not to vote for Le Pen. Le Pen has also spoken of forming a ‘national unity’ government reaching across the spectrum, seeking to reverse the logic of past elections by positioning herself as leader of a broad coalition aiming to kick her rival out of office.
If Le Pen powers on and ultimately causes an upset, it would be celebration time for the far right not just in France but across Europe and beyond. It would further embolden the forces of nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, already buoyed by the recent victory of Le Pen ally Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It could only boost Putin.
If Macron prevails, many in French civil society will breathe a sigh of relief. But for Macron, it should be a moment for reflection rather than celebration.
In his victory speech in 2017, Macron acknowledged the anger that had propelled voters to Le Pen and promised to heal France, such that people would ‘never have a reason to vote for extreme candidates again’. He’s clearly failed. Five years on, over 30 per cent of voters backed two far-right candidates and over half of voters embraced some form of populism. Macron’s own party stepped up the anti-migrant, anti-Islam rhetoric, a tactic that has not sucked support away from the far right but instead normalised their ideology and made them stronger.
Macron hasn’t healed his country. Far-right narratives have continued to thrive to the point where extremism has become mainstream. The question now is whether Macron will be able to build a consensus that speaks to disaffection without further legitimising racism – and whether he’s prepared to sustain after the election the kind of coalition he evidently failed to build before. He’d be wise to try.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Macron, during the rest of his campaign and if re-elected, should focus on building a broad coalition to aid the long-term task of responding to disaffection without further enabling racism and Islamophobia.
The election winner should commit to keeping fully open the channels to express dissent in France.
Civil society should work collectively to tackle narratives that enable racism and Islamophobia.
Cover photo by Chesnot/Getty Images