On the eve of the April 10 first round of voting, the re-election of French President Emmanuel Macron no longer seems a certainty. Over the last few weeks, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has closed part of the gap with Macron in the polls and is now within striking distance in both rounds of voting, including the decisive runoff on April 24. Of course, a Le Pen victory would unleash an unprecedented political tsunami not just in France but in Europe and transatlantic relations, in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine and France’s presidency of the European Union until July 1.
Since the beginning of the campaign, polls have shown Macron leading a dozen candidates by large margins in the April 10 ballot and defeating any potential opponent in the decisive runoff. The Covid-19 and Ukraine crises have given him unique visibility and credibility. Other candidates and issues, including Macron’s record, have been overshadowed or come to seem irrelevant. Indeed, since war broke out in Ukraine, Macron’s lead in the polls has increased, making his re-election look almost inevitable even before he declared his candidacy. An exhausted and frightened electorate has been more inclined to rally around the nation’s “protector-in-chief” than envision an alternative at the top. If confirmed, Macron’s re-election would be an unprecedented accomplishment in the Fifth Republic. True, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac also won re-election—in 1988 and 2002, respectively; but they had the advantage of campaigning against the opposition’s incumbent parliamentary majority.
Until Le Pen’s recent rally in the polls, the present campaign has been dominated by the suspense surrounding who might qualify on the first ballot to face Macron in the runoff. In addition to veteran candidates Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, the tight battle for second place has involved two surprise candidates who have redefined the campaign. The most disruptive of them has been Éric Zemmour, who poses an alternative to Le Pen on the nationalist, anti-immigration far right. The other is Valérie Pécresse, president of the Paris region, who unexpectedly won her Les Républicains (LR) party’s primaries to challenge Macron directly on his right flank. Currently, Le Pen appears to be edging out Zemmour and Pécresse while Mélenchon is gaining in the polls. If Macron defeats Le Pen again, he will interpret his victory as that of democrats over populists, progressives over conservatives and Europeanists over nationalists, as well as confirmation that the traditional left/right cleavage is withering away.
Although war in Ukraine could have hurt the chances of Le Pen, Zemmour, and Mélenchon, who all have expressed sympathy for Putin in the past and been critics of NATO and the European Union, it did not turn out that way. Only Zemmour paid a price for suggesting closing France’s borders to Ukrainian refugees. Le Pen, whose leading campaign issue has been the purchasing power of ordinary citizens, was vindicated by the spike in gas prices caused by the war. Putin’s aggression did not slow Mélenchon’s last-minute rise in the polls, as left-leaning voters regrouped to qualify him for the runoff. Pécresse lost potential voters to Macron over Ukraine as they competed for overlapping constituencies.
Macron has benefited from a combination of luck and talent to exploit the exceptional circumstances of the last two presidential campaigns. In 2017, his message of political renewal was welcome amid the collapse of the leading parties and candidates around him. In the runoff, Macron was fortunate enough to face Le Pen, whom most voters did not want as president. In the current campaign, a no less exceptional context has favored the candidate of continuity. If re-elected, Macron may lack a clear mandate and risk being exposed to subsequent social unrest.
What explains Macron’s lead in the polls—albeit a shrinking one—on the eve of the first round? Macron found the resources to turn the three major crises of his presidency—the yellow vests revolt, Covid, and Ukraine—into political opportunities. Centrist Macron has also taken advantage of a split opposition, as well as the inability of both the Right and Left to recover from the political earthquake of 2017, overcome internal divisions and partisan splintering, and run appealing presidential candidates.
Macron’s electoral success does not primarily reflect his record: Some 60 percent of the French have a negative view of his performance. Macron’s dilution of the wealth tax alienated the traditional Left. His party gradually lost its majority in the National Assembly, with the resignation of about forty mostly left-leaning deputies over the past five years. But Macron’s liberal economic reforms and restoration of public order after the yellow vests uprising expanded his support on the center-right. For most of his presidency, a narrow but growing coalition of pro-business constituencies and cultural progressives has faced rising opposition from conservatives critical of Macron’s alleged weakness on crime, immigration, and defending secularism from Islam.
Macron partly delivered on his politically sensitive liberal economic reforms, giving labor markets more flexibility and cutting taxes on capital gains, though he failed to enact his pension reform. He has been particularly active on European and foreign policy, obtaining a massive European rescue package in the middle of the Covid pandemic. But Macron’s vision of a more strategically autonomous Europe met headwinds in Germany and Eastern Europe, at least until Putin’s invasion seemed to vindicate it. And he failed in his project to renew the political system so as to make it more ethical and participatory. His own overt favoritism was exposed in the 2018 “Benalla affair” concerning his rogue bodyguard. His new party, En Marche, never took root in la France profonde, acting as a mere rubber stamp for Macron’s policies. He has failed to strengthen French social cohesion: The society has by all measures become even more fragmented and violent over the past five years.
However, Macron deftly turned each of the three major crises of his presidency into an opportunity to expand his political base. In the yellow vests revolt, his tough measures against street violence reassured the middle class, and his direct policy dialogue with the grassroots won him supporters on the left. His approval ratings rose through the Covid and Ukraine crises. Despite Macron’s sometimes erratic messaging, his “whatever it costs” strategy to save businesses and jobs was widely supported by the public and vindicated by the return of economic growth and employment. Macron’s active diplomacy to deter Putin and find a solution to the Ukraine war has received wide support in France and abroad.
He also enjoys a weak and divided opposition. Except for Macron’s, all political parties came out of the 2017 election cycle smaller and more divided, if not splintered. Macron’s success in the center has the key advantage of splitting the opposition. The Left has seemed irrelevant to this election, rejecting primaries that could have rallied its supporters behind a single candidate. Mélenchon surged toward 15 percent at the end of the campaign, well ahead of the Green party’s candidate, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo of the once mighty Socialist Party trailing at 1.5 percent. More than qualifying for the runoff, the Left is trying to use the first ballot results to shape its own post-election partisan structure, leadership, and direction.
France’s far Right has attracted a record 30 to 35 percent of potential voters but is now split between Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), and Zemmour’s Reconquête! Following its collapse in 2017, the once powerful neo-Gaullist party Les Républicains staked its survival on this election. Pécresse unexpectedly won the primaries and has sought to reunite a party deeply divided party since Sarkozy’s re-election defeat in 2012. She describes herself as one-third Thatcher and two-thirds Merkel. The split of the far Right gave her a chance to top Le Pen. Yet, her campaign failed to deliver because of LR’s narrow political space, split between a Macron-compatible wing and a more conservative one that shares Zemmour’s outlook on immigration, crime, and French identity. Pécresse’s economic proposals did not prove distinct enough from Macron’s and she came short of Zemmour’s credibility on law and order.
Zemmour, after pulling LR’s primaries to the right, challenged Le Pen’s monopoly on the far right by proposing more of a conservative than a populist version of nationalism. He has appealed to both the conservative wing of Pécresse’s LR and the free marketeers among Le Pen’s RN. Promising thirty-two-year-old politician Marion Maréchal supports Zemmour, to the chagrin of her aunt, Le Pen.
Le Pen has spent the last five years tailoring her message to a broader and more mainstream electorate and proposing more credible policies. But a sense of disillusionment built up among some of her aides and supporters after her disastrous TV debate with Macron on the eve of the 2017 runoff and her severe defeat at the polls. Those supporters became convinced that Le Pen, now in her third presidential election, would never win the presidency because she lacks the policy mastery expected of the occupant of the Élysée Palace, and her strategy of rejecting alliances for the second round has run into a wall. She has hinted that this is her last campaign.
Zemmour has seized the opportunity offered by a more subdued RN. He does not shy from unrealistic proposals like returning one million illegal immigrants to their countries of origin. The two far-right candidates have sharply different constituencies, identities, and strategies. Le Pen denies she is on the far right and rejects the right/left dichotomy. By contrast, Zemmour’s ambition is to unite the Right from his end of nationalism to the conservative wing of LR. RN has a strong class base and identity: 47 percent of factory workers and 31 percent of employees vote for RN. Le Pen combats globalization with socialist economic policies and exploits the resentment of elites. Zemmour’s fledgling Reconquête movement is economically anti-statist and seeks an alliance of the middle class with what Zemmour calls the “patriotic bourgeoisie.” Compared to Le Pen, he lacks support in rural France and among women and the young. Le Pen’s ideal foil is the elitist Macron, while Zemmour’s is far-left demagogue Mélenchon.
Le Pen’s last-minute comeback in the polls and renewed hope to win the presidency might seem anticlimactic. But since 2017, Le Pen has shown exceptional resilience. Whereas Macron was able to hang on to his role as president when he appeared weakened by the yellow vests uprising, Le Pen had no comparable resources to bounce back after her infamous TV performance and defeat in 2017. Her most stable resource is a very solid base among the working class, provided these voters turn out. Compared to her 33 percent showing to Macron’s 66 percent in 2017, there are several reasons that can explain the higher percentage and possible victory Le Pen is expected to achieve this time in the runoff against Macron.
In contrast to 2017, Macron now has a record that has made him unpopular with large sections of the electorate. Zemmour has of course been a fierce rival for Le Pen, but he has also helped the RN’s own efforts to appeal to the mainstream by looking more moderate and credible. The continuing shift of public opinion toward the right and far right will benefit Le Pen in the runoff, as the vast majority of Zemmour supporters in the first round intend to vote for her in the second. The weakening of political parties and growing voter volatility have also undermined the old front républicain, by which all other parties vowed to reject any alliance with RN. For example, about a quarter of first round Mélenchon voters on the far left plan to vote for Le Pen in the runoff. For them, RN is another populist party defending the interests of the working class against elites such as Macron, the former banker. Macron and Le Pen are foils to each other because of their very contrasting social bases, styles, and policies. Both reject the right/left dichotomy. Zemmour and Mélenchon are also foils to each other but around a more classic conservative/progressive opposition.
Even if Macron ends up the winner, the coming election will not be an endorsement of the status quo. This presidential election and the upcoming June legislative elections will prove to be more milestones in the French realignment that started with a boomerang in 2017 and over the next five years will become, for better or worse, increasingly clear.
Patrick Chamorel, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is senior resident scholar and lecturer at Stanford in Washington, Stanford University.
Image: Lorie Shaull, celebrations in Paris of the 2017 French election results, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58598403
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe