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What is the French presidential election about? [Long read]

What is the French presidential election about? [Long read]

In this series of blog posts, the historians Michael C. Behrent and Emile Chabal have teamed up with award-winning French journalist, Marion Van Renterghem to offer an in-depth look at the stakes, issues, themes, and big ideas that underpin the 2022 French electoral cycle. This first blog post focuses on the unique character of this presidential election campaign, which exposes profound changes in the French political landscape in the context of a major European war.

The upcoming French presidential election presents something of a paradox. On the one hand, the outcome seems—at this stage—a foregone conclusion. Every single poll has the outgoing president, Emmanuel Macron, on course for re-election, often by a double-digit margin in both rounds. Not since Charles de Gaulle contested the first direct presidential election of the Fifth Republic in 1965 has one candidate’s success seemed so inevitable. Such is the weight of expectation that the entire political class and a good chunk of the French electorate have accepted this fait accompli with little more than a shrug.

Nevertheless, while such an overwhelming electoral narrative could easily be interpreted as a mere continuation of the status quo, nothing could be further from the truth. This presidential election, more than any other in recent memory, exposes much deeper transformations that have been taking place in French politics—and does so in a remarkably volatile geopolitical context. What this election lacks in suspense, it more than makes up for in its complexity. Indeed, it is likely that the main story—Macron’s re-election—will turn out to be one of the least interesting things about it.

Macron, the inevitable president?

Long before the crisis in Ukraine took a decisive turn for the worse, Macron had set himself on course for re-election. The pandemic neutered the most sustained grassroots opposition to his rule, which came from the multifaceted gilets jaunes movement in 2018-9. This months-long protest movement focused on some of the most unpopular aspects of Macron and his politics, from his excessive presidentialism to his rhetorical commitment to a more “flexible,” climate-compatible economic model. It also solidified the view, with which Macron has struggled throughout his public career, that he belongs to a “globalized elite” that is insensitive to the struggles of ordinary people. But the lockdown in the spring of 2020—one of the harshest in Europe—stopped all protest in its tracks. As the pandemic wore on, and despite the gradual reopening of French society from summer 2020, criticisms of Macron ebbed away.

“This presidential election, more than any other in recent memory, exposes much deeper transformations that have been taking place in French politics”

It helped that Macron’s biggest political gamble of the pandemic—the introduction of a comprehensive vaccine passport (passe sanitaire) in June 2021—was a success. This was not a foregone conclusion. France was the first country in Europe to adopt a domestic vaccine passport across many sectors of the economy, and it was exactly the sort of unilateral intervention that many French people have come to resent from their state. And yet most French people responded exactly in the way that Macron had hoped, not by pouring out into the streets but by flocking to vaccination centres. Within a few months and after a faltering start, France had one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Europe.

The pandemic also provided precious few opportunities for political opponents to gain traction. The right and far-right’s inconsistent attempts to harness discontent with the passe sanitaire quickly floundered. And the unprecedented state intervention that was used to prop up the French economy caught the French left completely off-guard. Whereas, in the first few years of his presidency, Macron struggled to shake off his Napoleonic image as the président des riches, his steady handling of the COVID-19 crisis had, by 2022, made him into the archetype of the Gaullist président protecteur.

It is easy to take this transformation for granted, but it is worth remembering that Macron was very inexperienced when he came to power in 2017. He was uniquely unqualified for the job of president, and he faced significant challenges from the right and left of the political spectrum. His ability to cannibalise the different factions on the centre-right and centre-left is reminiscent of François Mitterrand’s well-documented success in eliminating his opponents on the French left in the 1970s and 1980s. One might even want to suggest a parallel between Mitterrand’s re-election campaign in 1988 and Macron’s re-election campaign in 2022.

The difference is that Mitterrand got re-elected by moderating the left and making his party—the Parti socialiste—a formidable electoral vehicle against the right. By contrast, Macron has so monopolised the centre that only the far-ends of the political spectrum are in a position to challenge him.

What happened to France’s political parties?

“Macron has so monopolised the centre that only the far-ends of the political spectrum are in a position to challenge him.”

French political parties come and go; they have none of the staying power of their counterparts in other major democracies. Yet rarely have they seemed quite as ephemeral as at present. The issue is not just the party-as-institution, but the political framework to which parties belong: the left-right spectrum.

In 2017, to support his presidential campaign, Macron invented a party—La République en marcheor LREM—out of thin air, while campaigning on the slogan “neither right nor left.” His gambit succeeded, with the help of a perfect political storm, including an unpopular socialist incumbent and the implosion of the conservative frontrunner, François Fillon. Before 2017, seven out of the nine previous presidential races resulted in runoffs between candidates belonging to or supported by centre-left and centre-right parties. In 2017, neither the centre-right Les Républicains nor the centre-left Parti socialiste made it to the second round. Instead, the runoff was between Macron and the representative of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen. Macron won by a landslide margin of 66% to 34%.

In 2022, these trends are continuing and solidifying. The Parti socialiste, at least as far as presidential politics go, is in its death throes. As its candidate, it has chosen Anne Hidalgo, who is not only intelligent and politically savvy, but, as mayor of Paris, has more governing experience than any candidate besides Macron. Yet she is polling around 2%—only slightly ahead of candidates calling for a proletarian revolution. As for Les Républicains, they have selected Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Île de France’s regional government. With poll numbers ranging between 10 and 16%, she faces an uphill struggle to overcome Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, the two far-right candidates, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the main far-left candidate.

The primary beneficiary of this situation is Macron and the political vision he embodies. Thanks to his combination of pro-business policies with an unflinchingly pro-European outlook, he and his party have held on to a segment of centre-left votes—the Parti socialiste, after all, often practiced surreptitiously the policies that Macron is pursuing overtly—while also appealing to some centre-right voters. This tells us something important about the reconfiguration of the left-right spectrum in France. In his classic 1957 study An Economic Theory of Democracy, the economist Anthony Downs argued that parties had an interest in splitting their differences in the political spectrum’s centre, allowing each to claim one swathe of the electorate. Something quite different is happening in France. Macron has monopolized the political centre: he has gobbled up the moderately pro-business and pro-European electorate, leaving a bevy of smaller parties to fight over the less digestible morsels (comprised, in part, of voters who feel disenfranchised and tempted by the extremes).

“Today, the most dynamic parties appear to be nothing more than vehicles for an increasingly personalized political process.”

The role of parties in political life is changing, too. Although de Gaulle famously disdained independent parties and used them simply as a form of parliamentary validation, this was not the norm. Most parties were recognisable coalitions based on ideological affinity and shared interests. Today, the most dynamic parties appear to be nothing more than vehicles for an increasingly personalized political process. Macron’s LREM is the most successful example of this, but the same can be said of Zemmour’s Reconquête!, and, to a degree, Le Pen’s recently rebranded Rassemblement national and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise. Party-related activities that have long shaped French politics—including internal processes for selecting candidates, recruiting candidates for local contests, or writing the party platform (projet)—are losing their importance. It is not impossible that the traditional coalition party in France will disappear over the next few years.

France’s great moving right show

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, at least at the national level, the only significant political competition in France is now between factions of the right. The novelty of the current race is the presence of a second far-right candidate, the journalist Zemmour, alongside the old stalwart, Le Pen, whose party (and family) have run in every presidential race since 1988. If one includes Macron, the right side of the spectrum is currently supported by around 70% of the electorate.

But the right’s growing share of the electorate comes with greater competition among the right. Macron’s politics are a complex mix of the French liberal tradition and elements of the centre-left and centre-right, but many of his policies belong recognisably to the playbook of the European centre right, including supply-side economics, pro-flexibility labour market reforms, and a staunchly pro-European outlook. Further to the right, both Le Pen and Zemmour embrace a nationalist, anti-immigrant program. But whereas Le Pen has doubled down on restricting access to citizenship alongside her protectionist and populist economic agenda, Zemmour has emphasized a “civilizational” definition of Frenchness, centred on the country’s Christian heritage, and advocates pro-business policies. Pécresse has struggled to nudge her way into this debate, presenting herself as a bit more nationalistic than Macron, but not as risky as the far-right candidates.

What explains this rightward tilt—this “droitisation of French politics? First, the Parti socialiste clearly bears some responsibility for the loss of its hegemonic status on the left. Its blending of an increasingly disingenuous rhetoric of social progress with de facto neoliberalism not only undercut its credibility, but also scuttled its ability to unite the left’s multiple constituencies. The disastrous presidency of François Hollande (2012-2017) sealed the party’s fate. Second, as our collaborator Marion van Renterghem has noted, the left has found it hard to find the right approach on a set of issues that clearly preoccupy the French: immigration and the integration of minorities. Consequently, the right’s obsessions have drowned out alternative perspectives. This was brought home in spectacular fashion during the television debate between Pécresse and Zemmour on 10 March. Despite disagreeing over which categories of immigrants to expel and whether Islam should be conflated with Islamism, both candidates took the need for a hard line on these issues for granted.

“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, at least at the national level, the only significant political competition in France is now between factions of the right.”

Finally, the rightward bias of French politics is a consequence of the obsolescence of parties. Before it collapsed, the Parti socialiste had only to appear slightly left-leaning to capture a significant chunk of the electorate. As it fades into oblivion, its more moderate supporters have shifted their support to Macron simply to find the most palatable option on the political market. Meanwhile, the various parties and social movements of the French left appear to be locked in an internecine struggle that has little relevance to the wider electorate. One only needs to look at the ill-fated Primaire Populaire, which was designed to help select the main candidate of the left, to see how disconnected the concerns of the left and its activists are from the main centre of gravity of this electoral cycle.

The spectre of war in Europe

One of the most unusual aspects of this campaign has been the brutal eruption of all-out war in Europe. Never before has a French presidential election campaign been so violently interrupted by an unexpected foreign policy crisis. In and of itself, the Russian invasion of Ukraine would have been a major inflection in the campaign, but it was made more acute by Macron’s pivotal role in attempting to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. In less than 48 hours, Macron went from brokering a deal he thought would keep Russian forces at bay to watching helplessly as these same forces poured across the border in the biggest geopolitical disaster for Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. For several days, there was wall-to-wall coverage on French television of Macron’s negotiations and then the war itself; the presidential election, normally the dominant news item at this point in the campaign, was virtually non-existent.

It is too early to guess where the conflict in Ukraine will go or what its long-term impact on French politics will be. But we do know that it has upended an already confusing presidential race. For Macron, it has been a blessing in disguise. The threat of conflict has only enhanced the image he has been cultivating of the président protecteur, and the exigencies of war leadership have kept him above the fray. He seems not to have been blamed for agreeing a deal with Putin that turned out to be a complete fiction, and he has expertly managed the delicate transition from president to candidate. The word that returns again and again in media coverage of Macron is “intouchable.” He appears untouchable—and his opponents have been left fighting over the scraps.

But the war in Ukraine has also had a direct impact on the opposition. Most obviously, the almost universal public consensus—in France and elsewhere in Europe—that Russia’s war is illegitimate, immoral, and driven by Putin’s personal quest for imperial hegemony poses a serious problem for the far-right. In this respect, the difficulties facing Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen are no different to those facing Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini. After years of public support for Putin, they now need to find a way to make people forget their public statements and uncomfortable allegiances. As the war unfolded, Le Pen was the first to backtrack in an effort to stay aligned with public opinion. Zemmour has been slower to recant—and, in some cases, has held fast to his earlier positions. Either way, their association with Putin has turned into a liability.

More generally, the wider issues raised by the war have exposed weaknesses in the central themes of the far-right. The outpouring of sympathy towards Ukrainians is at odds with both Le Pen and Zemmour’s insistence that immigration must be halted at all costs. Meanwhile, the threat of military escalation has made their vocal campaign promise of a disengagement from the EU and an exit from NATO high command appear extremely unwise. A longstanding hostility towards NATO is also a problem for Mélenchon, but the far-left candidate’s anti-imperialist critique appears less compromised than the far-right’s open admiration for Putin.

“There may not be much in the way of suspense, but this election could well turn out to be a key indicator of the ideological and geopolitical world to come.”

It is striking, too, how the war in Ukraine has resurrected domestic issues that had passed into the realm of technocratic management rather than electoral politics. The implications of the war for France’s energy security featured prominently in the “grand entretien” on 14 March, which featured two journalists interviewing the top eight candidates separately in a television studio. All the candidates—including Macron—grappled with the future of France’s civil nuclear programme as a potential response to energy insecurity, and the classic theme of “pouvoir d’achat” (standard of living) was framed almost exclusively in terms of the war. Issues such as food prices, petrol prices, and taxation, which form the bread-and-butter of most French election campaigns, were given a distinctive wartime twist.

Of course, the Ukraine crisis may have no impact on the way the French vote in April. After all, in most democracies, foreign policy questions do not rank highly on voters’ list of reasons for choosing one candidate over another. Nevertheless, the omnipresence of this crisis in the key weeks running up to the election seems likely to inflect certain tendencies. Zemmour’s intransigence and inexperience—previously seen as assets by his electorate—are less likely to be attractive, whereas Macron’s technocratic competence will be enhanced by the surrounding chaos. Beyond these individual narratives, the Ukraine crisis has raised the stakes of this election. There may not be much in the way of suspense, but this election could well turn out to be a key indicator of the ideological and geopolitical world to come.

Featured image by Alice Triquet on Unsplash

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