Fear and loathing during the French elections

At first glance, the result of Sunday’s French presidential election appears to be a carbon copy of the result from five years ago. Emmanuel Macron finished a handful of points ahead of Marine Le Pen, with left-hander Jean-Luc Mélenchon once again coming third.

This means another second round between Macron and Le Pen. However, this time the race will be much tighter. Most polls currently predict that Macron will win by a hair’s breadth. Dig below the surface of Sunday’s results and you’ll discover a more fractured and disillusioned French electorate than it was five years ago.

In 2017, Macron successfully appealed to the “republican front” – an unspoken alliance between left and right voters to keep Le Pen out of power. Jacques Chirac had done the same to Le Pen (father) since the presidential palace in 2002, the third time, however, might not be so lucky.

On the one hand, Macron is no longer a novelty. Indeed, he oversaw five tumultuous years, defined to some extent by the opposition on the streets. The ‘yellow vest’ protests – which began in 2018 in response to rising petrol prices – have been widespread and there has also been public opposition to lockdown restrictions and mandatory health passes.

Many on the left have also been disappointed by the liberal economic program (tax cuts, planned increase in the retirement age) of what they call “the president of the rich”.

And, to make matters worse, the president’s campaign was weak and short, which did little to combat a perception that he is arrogant and out of touch. Consequently, fewer voters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt this time around.

Moreover, perceptions of Marine Le Pen are also changing. She has done her utmost to present herself as a more moderate and acceptable choice – changing the name of her party and abandoning radical calls for “Frexit” in favor of greater French autonomy in economic policy and development. ‘immigration. During the election campaign, anti-immigration tirades were swapped for selfies and soft interviews.

The first-round result shows she hasn’t significantly widened her base as a result, but more voters appear to be considering her as a potential second-round option.

His rebranding was significantly aided by the rise of Eric Zemmour. His repetition of racist conspiracies made Le Pen appear positively moderate, and Zemmour’s popularity in the more affluent Parisian suburbs helped extend the reach of the far right as a whole.

Zemmour and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – who between them won 9% of the vote – called on their supporters to now vote for Le Pen. While she won’t sweep every single one of those votes, in raw terms she has 32% of the second-round votes in the bag while endorsements for Macron take it to 41%.

Thus, the race will depend on the votes of the 22% who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate committed to economic redistribution, withdrawal from NATO and radical action to fight climate change.

As in 2017, Mélenchon warned his supporters against voting for Le Pen (without supporting Macron). However, they seem less likely to heed his warning a second time. In 2017, 52% of Mélenchon voters opted for Macron – only 7% transferred to Le Pen. This time, depending on which poll you read, they are split 20-27% for Le Pen and 36-43% for Macron.

This partly reflects some of the support of Mélenchon (the older, working class) who is receptive to Le Pen’s attacks on globalization and his emphasis on the cost of living crisis (the number one issue for French voters ) through proposals such as a 70% reduced VAT on fuel, gas and electricity. Yet a number of voters also seem to have decided that Le Pen simply cannot be worse than Macron. The status quo is no longer as attractive as it once was.

Macron, too, will appeal to Mélenchon voters. He promised to develop his program to fight “anger and despair”. Still, it’s hard to see how he can present this case convincingly in 14 days. He also said he was ready to compromise on plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 – a key point of attack for Le Pen – but lower it to 64 or the Slowing down gradually might not be enough.

Macron’s best bet is probably to convince wavering voters of the need to keep the far right out of power. 20% of voters in the first round are undecided, which means there is still a lot to play for. It’s one thing to tell a pollster you’d rather abstain than vote for Macron, but it’s another to stay home on Election Day and boost the chances of a Le Pen victory.

To get voters out, Macron will have to convince them that France will be even more divided and precarious under Le Pen. He could highlight his proposals to ban the headscarf in public, his historical ties to Russian money and Vladimir Putin, environmental policies that would blow up the path to net zero, and EU policies that risk damaging the French economy and isolating it internationally.

In a race defined by disillusionment and dissent, Macron’s task is to rally the anti-Le Pen cause, arguing that beneath his new sheepskin clothes hides the same old wolf.

By Joël Reland, UK researcher in a changing Europe.

Mary I. Bruner