- Sean Young and Katie Harmon
The French Election & its Reflection on Ideological Divisions in France
On April 24, French voters will choose a candidate who will lead them for the next five years as president. This election—the first European election since the Russian invasion of Ukraine—will be an incredibly decisive event for the nation’s foreign policy, economy, political parties, and youth.
More than 40 contenders from across the political spectrum sought to be candidates for this year’s election, but only twelve official candidates are on the ballot. A third of them are women seeking to become France’s first female president. Current President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist politician from La République en Marche party, will be running for reelection.
On the right, major contenders included Marine Le Pen from the Rassemblement National (National Rally), Éric Zemmour from Reconquête (Reconquest), and Valérie Pécresse from Les Républicains (The Republicans).
On the left, the most popular candidates were Jean-Luc Mélenchon from La France Insoumise (Insurmount France), Anne Hidalgo from the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party), and Yannick Jadot from the Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (Green Party). Macron’s strongest opponents were Le Pen and Zemmour from the far right and Melenchon from the far left.
As of April 4, these were the polls:
As a centrist political figure and the youngest president ever in French history, Macron started a movement to challenge traditional parties when he won the presidential election in 2017. Previously, he had been an unknown former economic minister with no experience in elected office. When he ran for the presidency, however, he digressed from traditional big parties and old loyalties. As an independent candidate, Macron stood out to voters and won the presidency over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote. In office, he made it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, cut taxes on capital and income for both corporations and households, trimmed unemployment benefits, and introduced tough security laws to combat terrorism.
Eloise Wasserman, a student at the Institut Sup’Biotech de Paris, said that “there is almost no suspense” in his re-election because of his high polling numbers. Unless “a big scandal explodes,” it is almost certain Macron will win, said Wasserman. Houchang Chehabi, Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, agrees, noting the economic advancements made in his first term in office.
The economic strategies put in place to reach this number are the main reason he is favored over Le Pen and other far-right candidates, most of whom have focused their platforms more on crime, immigration, and cost of living. While COVID-19’s economic effect forced him to scrap a plan that aimed to bring France’s unemployment rate down from 10 to 7 percent by 2022, it still decreased to 7.4%, the lowest level in more than a decade. His “whatever it costs” strategy supported businesses and employment rates with heavy government spending. About one million private-sector jobs have also been created since the beginning of his term, said the government, according to the Financial Times.
Chart from Reuters.
In addition to COVID-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became another crucial challenge during Macron’s presidency. “When the COVID wave started, and then Ukraine, [Macron] was able [to] appear to the French people as a good crisis manager,” said Le Monde reporter Gilles Paris. As of March 23, his approval ratings have risen to 51% since the start of the invasion. “And that’s why he should be reelected easily.”
Le Pen, Macron’s major right-wing opponent, remains in second place thirteen points behind Macron. As a candidate from the far-right Rassemblement Nationale party, Le Pen’s platform has expressed anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment. Similar to Zemmour, she also has a past of supporting Putin, despite appearing to condemn the invasion and warning against sanctions that might hurt the French economy. However, Le Pen’s position as an established political figure has put her ahead of other right-wing candidates in the polls, and her slightly less extreme views have helped develop her lead over Zemmour.
As of March 29, the poll numbers had Le Pen trailing Macron by 9% with Macron having 28% of polls and Le Pen having 19%. According to Chehabi, the voters Le Pen is attracting across France are anti-system voters, part of an anti-elite/anti-upper middle class. The voters who are even further right on the political spectrum than Le Pen are putting their support behind Zemmour.
According to some of the French, Le Pen has a different focus for this year’s campaign. While the 2017 election saw her emphasizing her own plans for office and the policies she sought, in 2022 her campaign is Macron’s mistakes and why he should not be re-elected. According to Chehabi, the main problem facing Le Pen this election is the fact that she already lost once to Macron. He described the new attitude in France toward Le Pen, saying that the “stigma of being a loser pangs about her.” But she likely doesn’t have the full support of all right-wing voters. Chehabi said that many voters believe she has made “too many compromises,” a reason some voters support Zemmour over her.
On the left side of the political spectrum is Melenchon, who was the strongest candidate on the left-wing, representing La France Insoumise. Some voters say Melenchon is “too lenient” on Putin and his invasion, similar to the far-right candidates. He has also expressed controversial plans to leave NATO to make France a non-aligned state. Previously a teacher and journalist, he joined left-wing politics in the 1970s and served briefly as the junior educator minister under a Socialist party. But he soon strayed away from the party’s right-leaning platform. He set up his own party and obtained 19.7% of the vote in the 2017 election. While he promised higher-state spending, a top tax rate of 90%, and constitutional reforms for the Sixth French Republic during the last presidential race, this year he promised to lower the retirement age to 60 and raise the minimum wage.
After the Russian invasion, far-right candidates have been condemned for their previous support of Putin and his illiberal democracy. Zemmour, a passionate nationalist and Eurosceptic from the Reconquete party, has had a past of being pro-Russian and even pro-Putin, despite condemning the invasion. He claims to have “longed for a French Putin,” and has even called the autocrat a patriot who loves and defends his country.
With no previous election experience, Zemmour, a journalist, author, political philosopher, and TV commentator, seeks to combat a “politically correct consensus” and “reconquest” France in the next election. He supports common right-wing sentiments, with anti-immigration and anti-Islam views. Seen as the more nationalist counterpart to Le Pen, he plans for the deportation of 100,000 immigrants to Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, a plan condemned by other right-wing politicians like Le Pen. He has also modeled his campaign on Former President Trump and has tried to brand himself as the “French Donald Trump.”
Similar to Trump in American media, Zemmour has received a lot of media attention in France. Arcom, the media regulator, has even issued warnings to RTL, the media platform broadcasting Zemmour the most, to give more airtime to other candidates. France is strict on electoral coverage and regulates each candidates’ airtime; during the presidential campaign, each candidate is allotted exactly the same airtime on every network up until midnight on April 8. During voting time, French media respects “la silence electorale,” a two-day restriction on quoting candidates or citing opinion polls. The idea is to take away the possibility of influencing a voter’s decision by not showing the advancement of any one candidate while voting is taking place.
Public consensus in this election seems to be following broader European trends in the battle between the left and right wing. While the left has had victories across Europe in the past few years, the power of right-wing movements have been steadily rising. Polls currently show that the candidates on the right have approximately one-third of the vote, whereas the candidates on the left, except for Macron, only have about one-fifth of the vote. Chehabi points out that if all candidates on the far right and far left percentages were added up, they would make up approximately 50% of the vote in this upcoming election. These statistics demonstrate a developing polarization in recent years, as well as a people’s desire for more drastic changes in government.
Chehabi notes the reason for this trend in favor of the right primarily stems from immigration policies, with the left being a proponent of immigration and the right being generally against it, varying on levels of extremity. Matteo David, a student in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences and a French native, said the rising popularity of the right is due to its anti-immigration stance. This is, as David notes, because an influx of immigrants in recent years has indirectly caused a significant rise in taxes on French citizens. Despite this sentiment, however, most people do not expect far-right candidates to win over Macron.
The election will take place in two voting rounds on April 10 and 24. In a rare instance, a candidate could win office during the first round of voting if they earn more than 50% of the vote. In most cases, no candidate will reach 50% and the winner will be picked from the two leading candidates in a second runoff vote. The candidates eliminated during the first round can endorse one of the finalists or none. This system was created by France’s first modern president to decrease the influence of major political parties by allowing for a variety of presidential candidates to run without their backing. Macron’s victory is a direct result of these changes, as he was a candidate with no prior electoral position who established his own party.
Both David and Wasserman noted Zemmour’s sudden rise to popularity during his presidential campaign, much like Macron’s rise in 2017, but they still believe that Macron has a better chance of winning. “[The youth] know Macron is going to win,” said David, “so they feel no need to participate.” Wasserman agreed, saying that while she and those around her feel “excited to vote for big elections like this one,” some are not voting for a variety of reasons. One is a lack of concern with election results, another is a common sentiment that their opinions are not being represented by any candidate.
Chart from Politico.
A common saying in France is “the first round is for voting with one’s heart while the second is for voting with one’s head.” The second round is sometimes referred to as choosing “the lesser of two evils”, as a race between just two candidates has a much weaker diversity of ideas and platforms.
The majority sentiment is that Macron will have a record-breaking win and become the first French president in 20 years to win re-election. However, some far-right candidates, such as Le Pen, have seen consistent poll numbers and could challenge Macron. In today’s political atmosphere, the French have an important decision to make on April 10 and April 24. As reporter Paul Kirby from the BBC said, “The winner, to be chosen from four women and eight men, will have the power to shape France and its key role in Europe for the next five years.”
Chart from The Economist.
First Round Results
After the first round of the elections, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen were the two candidates who continued to the second round on April 24. Macron received 27.6% of the vote, and Le Pen received 23.4% as of 10:30pm Eastern Daylight Time, with 99% of the vote already counted, and 50% of the vote needed to win the presidency. At this time, it is unknown which one of the two candidates will be endorsed by each of the eliminated candidates, or if the eliminated candidates will abstain and not endorse anybody, but this will be found out in the next couple of days.
Chart from The Economist.
By April 15, polls began to pull tighter as liberal and nationalist voters sought out their desired candidates. Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living has attracted the majority of nationalist sentiment in France. Despite this, Macron still faces a high chance of winning the presidency based on widespread centrist values and Macron’s handling of the Ukrainian War. As of April 17, it is estimated that Macron has a 87/100 chance of winning, while Le Pen has a 13/100 chance.
Chart from The Economist.
Second Round Results
Incumbent Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen went head to head in the French Presidential Debate last Wednesday. The main topics were: purchasing power, Russia, the EU, and the economy. The candidates who were eliminated in the first round have also recently told their voters which candidate they endorse in the second round. Fabien Roussel, Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot, and Valérie Pécresse have called on their voters to vote against Le Pen, with Pécresse, who is a conservative candidate, saying there could be “disastrous consequences” if Le Pen wins.
On April 24, the second round of the French elections took place. The New York Times has already announced Macron’s victory of a second term, the first French president to win a second term since 2002, with his 58.2 percent of the vote beating Le Pen’s 41.8 percent. Le Pen has already conceded to Macron, concluding the 2022 French elections.