France on the eve of its presidential election

En Route

Twenty-one days ago, on April 2nd, 2022, my coworker and I were uneasy. We were on a long-haul bus, heading south from The Hague, through Brussels, and into the former industrial heartlands of northern France. Our uneasiness had come from our latest glance at France’s famously finnicky opinion polls. In a hypothetical second-round matchup between incumbent liberal Emmanuel Macron and the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen, Macron was barely clearing 50% of the vote. Within a mere few weeks, Le Pen had closed their margin from twelve points to six.

Before this moment, we had decided to come to France as more of a formality than anything else. We both wanted to write about the election, and Thomas Jardine, my good friend and coworker, had traveled to other states of the EU before for the purposes of interviewing Europeans before various national elections in the Netherlands and Germany. But faced with the prospect of a far-right victory, we were more eager than ever to hear what the French had to say about their upcoming election.

The State of the Race

French presidential elections take place every five years, with separate “rounds” of voting spaced two weeks apart. This year, the first round took place on the 10th of April; the second round is scheduled for the 24th of April, this Sunday.  The 2022 elections are likely to be special for a few reasons. First, the most likely victor is the incumbent president. This is a rare occurrence in French politics; indeed, no president in the past twenty years has ever won re-election. Secondly, the second round of this election is also going to be a rematch: Emmanuel Macron will face off against his old rival in the 2017 election, Marine Le Pen.

The race has also been much closer than expected, especially over the past month. While Macron led Le Pen by double digits in early March, by early April the far-right leader had closed the gap and even (briefly) polled above Macron. As the final round inched closer over the past few weeks, Macron slowly clawed back his double-digit lead. Wednesday’s debate assisted in this matter: Macron denied her the victory she wanted to avenge the embarrassment of 2017, forcing her to admit that her party was still in debt to a state-connected Russian bank and beating back her attacks related to costs of living and the environment. Nevertheless, the idea of Marine Le Pen’s victory has hung over Europe like a specter over the past few weeks. As election day draws ever-nearer and the chances of her victory appear ever-slimmer, this fear has faded somewhat, but the possibility of a Le Pen resurgence remains distinct.

The Results of the First Round

In the first round, Emmanuel Macron performed better than expected, winning two points more than his polling average from the days before the vote. Marine Le Pen underperformed by similar margins. But this wasn’t all that was noteworthy about the first round. Particularly unexpected was the dramatic over-performance of Jean-Luc Mélénchon, who soared from an expected 19% of the vote to 22%, nearly knocking Marine Le Pen out of the second round. (Had the votes of communist candidates Phillippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud gone instead to the far-left Mélenchon, he would have made it over the line.)

Also noteworthy was who voted for whom: it was clear by the low margins of various left-wing candidates as compared with their expected results that many left-wing voters had swung last-minute for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Many of the voters initially backing Eric Zemmour or Valérie Pécresse picked Marine Le Pen, who herself seems to have succeeded in grabbing much of the working-class vote: Leiden University’s own Associate Professor of Public Policy Alexandre Afonso ran a series of regressions showing some very interesting correlations between the percentage of a municipality that was composed of manual laborers and the percentage who voted for various candidates.

The Issues That Matter

The Russo-Ukrainian War is perhaps the most obvious issue affecting the race, but its impact on the campaign and the election seems to be waning somewhat. At the war’s onset, Macron’s polling numbers jumped significantly, but that bump crested and began to drop precipitously heading into the first round as other issues rose to the forefront. France’s involvement in the crisis has been comparatively minimal, and while there is much sympathy for the Ukrainian cause, this has not translated into a significant impact on the course of the campaign. Marine Le Pen, who has for years professed admiration for and closeness to Vladimir Putin, suffered no significant loss in her electoral standing during the outbreak of the war: some ink has been spilled over the possibility that Eric Zemmour’s fall in the polls was due to the war, but it is more likely that this reflects right-wing consolidation around Le Pen.

Cost of living appears to be a dominant issue in this election and was the main reason why the race was so close for much of April. The war in Ukraine and its related supply shortages have driven up the cost of fuel and food in much of France, and Emmanuel Macron is feeling the heat from it. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has successfully moderated her image somewhat by focusing on cost-of-living issues.

Immigration is also an oft-cited issue among voters and has been at the forefront of campaign: however, questions about “immigration” often refers to issues not directly related to immigration. The place of Islam in French society has also been debated throughout the campaign, with Marine Le Pen calling for an outright ban on the public wearing of the hijab, and Eric Zemmour calling to ban non-traditionally French names.

But reading about the issues that matter and talking to everyday citizens about what matters to them are different matters entirely. With that in mind, my coworker Thomas Jardine and I arrived in the city of Lille in the early afternoon of April 2nd, and promptly began our work. We knew we would have to head back to The Hague within 24 hours, and we wanted to get in as many in-depth interviews as possible. Surprisingly, we accomplished a great deal, interviewing 92 people in three vastly different suburbs.

Lille, Loos, & Lambersart

Lille is the tenth-largest city in France, situated approximately 16 kilometers from the border with Belgium. In 2017, the city had swung for the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won in most of France’s larger metropolises, with Emmanuel Macron placing a close second. The people we talked to were largely young, and many shared similar concerns: the environment dominated, but also mentioned were the war in Ukraine, the preservation of the European Union, and immigration.

Voters who mentioned immigration typically paused to explain that by “concerns about immigration” they meant concerns about how the state treated immigrants, not concerns about the immigrants themselves. The comments of Zemmour and Le Pen concerned prospective voters, especially those who had foreign backgrounds themselves. Our findings were reflected in the final results: most of the voters we spoke to said they were voting for Mélenchon or Macron, who dominated the city’s vote with 40% and 25% of the vote, respectively.

Thomas and I moved on to Loos, the working-class suburb where we would be staying. In 2017, the population of Loos was split nearly perfectly down the middle between Le Pen and Mélenchon; Le Pen won by two individual votes. We talked to a wide variety of residents about the upcoming election, including recent immigrants, university students, young parents, pensioners, barflies, and small business owners. The issues that people in Loos discussed with us were markedly different from those which interested the population of Lille: the cost of living was the primary issue. Many also worried about the potential for certain candidates to incite hatred among their community; we encountered very few Zemmour or Le Pen voters, and Mélenchon seemed to be the crowd favorite. While we were worried about not being able to find many Le Pen voters in such a pro-Le Pen area, the pro-Mélenchon sentiment was backed up by the local results that came in on the 10th: Mélenchon flipped the municipality, winning an impressive 32% of the vote, while Le Pen dropped to second place with a much less impressive 24%.

As we left Loos, we passed a set of municipal placards, displaying all the candidates standing in the upcoming election. Unlike similar posters in Lille, all the posters displaying major candidates in Loos had been defaced. Macron’s had been ripped beyond recognition; Mélenchon’s had his electoral slogan, “another world is possible,” ripped out of the poster itself. Le Pen and Zemmour’s faces were given drawn-on Hitler-style moustaches and were scrawled with terms like homophobe, sexist, and racist.

Our final target was the wealthy suburb of Lambersart, which had swung handily for Emmanuel Macron in 2017 in the first round. We arrived on early Sunday morning; the streets were lined with trees, many streets were behind exclusive gates, and the far end of the municipality resembled a sort of America-esque cul-de-sac, not unlike those which Thomas and I were far too familiar. Most of the voters here supported either Macron or the environmentalist Yannick Jadot, although we also encountered several supporters of Mélenchon and Zemmour. In the first round, Macron won with nearly 40% of the vote, while Mélenchon came in second place with 21%.

It was also here that we encountered our only openly pro-Le Pen interviewees: two youths about our own age. Two people out of 92 interviewees was a shockingly low figure, and the fact that we found so few Le Pen voters in a region of the country which had plenty was unsettling to us. We reflected on the fact that many of our statistical woes probably stemmed from the fact that we couldn’t interview many people who used cars to get around. These voters, suffering from increased gas prices, might have been more sympathetic to Le Pen’s arguments about the cost of living, but we couldn’t know without taking to them.

The second round and the future of French politics

The runoff between Macron and Le Pen is set for tomorrow. The odds are good for the incumbent president: according to The Economist’s model, Macron has a 95% chance of winning a second term. But the race’s outcome is still not entirely certain, and the ghosts of all the incumbent French presidents defeated in the past twenty years surely haunt Emmanuel Macron.

The state of the race leaves the future of French politics uncertain. Macron’s political party, La Republic en Marche, is incredibly personalistic, and likely won’t last very long after Macron himself leaves the political stage. The same can be said for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, although Mélenchon himself looks set to still be relevant for a few more months, following his promise to campaign for Prime Minister in the legislative elections set for this June.

The French left is also struggling massively. In the words of one voter we spoke to, “the right may be fractured, but the left is splintered.” While Mélenchon’s final performance shows that it is not impossible for a left-wing candidate to do well, his final coalition was much broader than his base, and the voters he courts are unlikely to share all of his political opinions, (especially his more euroskeptic tendencies.) Striking a lasting political bargain among the French left is likely to be difficult yet.

An attempt at such a bargain, the so-called ‘people’s primary’ organized by popular French leftist Christiane Taubira, solved nothing. It sought to create an internal competition that would result in the election of a single, unifying left-wing candidate. It only had one problem: no major left-wing candidate (besides Taubira) willingly participated, and few of their supporters turned out to vote for them. As might be expected, the limited electorate picked Taubira herself. This changed nothing, and she exited the race soon afterwards.

(Fun fact: This ‘people’s primary’ wasn’t decided by a popular vote. Instead, as any true man or woman of the people would have it, it was decided through a method used by sommeliers to rate fine wines.)

The left wing may be struggling to unify, but the far-right has demonstrated that it is a force to be reckoned with, even if Le Pen loses her position at the head of the National Rally party. Approximately 30% of the overall vote went to explicitly far-right candidates, and the issues driving the far-right’s rise seem unlikely to lose their salience anytime soon.

With a rush to the extremes on either side and Macron dominating the centrist vote, the future of the long-standinng center-left and the center-right is dismal. The consistent dominance of the Parti Socialiste and Les Republicans has collapsed over the past five years, with the horrendous performance of the first round being only the latest in a series of tragedies for the social democrats and the Gaullists. The Republicans have been ripped in two by the forces of Macron on their left and Le Pen on their right, while the Parti Socialiste lost much of its relevance in 2017, when it failed to win even 7% of the vote. Two weeks ago, it failed to win 2%.

And this is where France stands facing both the second round and the next several years. Macron may be likely (if not certain) to win tomorrow’s run-off, but only time will tell how the French Republic will weather the storm of rising political extremism, popular malaise, falling turnout, and the war currently singing the borders of the European Union.

Photo by Alexus Goh on Unsplash