With polls showing a narrowing of the gap among the leading respondents, French voters begin the two-stage process of electing a president on April 10, 2022.
Many things have changed since incumbent President Emmanuel Macron took over the presidency in 2017, and yet the vote seems likely to focus on another battle between Macron and far-right candidate Marin Le Pen, despite new faces in the campaign. The second round of voting is expected to take place on April 24.
The Conversation asked European policy expert Gareth Martin of the American University in Washington to advise on what to look for in this election.
1. “One more time!”. When a national vote is not enough
April 10 will be only the first in a series of votes to be held in France in the coming weeks.
In the first round of the presidential election, voters will choose from 12 official candidates, including presenters Macron and Le Pen. Read more: “Nothing is impossible” in France today with almost equal chances for Macron and Le Pen
If no candidate receives more than 50% of all votes – a very likely result – the two leaders qualify for the run-off, which is scheduled for April 24. In this second round, the candidate with the most votes will become president.
But the vote will not end there. The French public will be called upon to vote again in two rounds of the parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for 12 and 19 June.
Parliamentary elections are just as important as those for electing a president. Whoever wins the presidency will depend on securing a majority of supporters in parliament to fulfill their agenda.
But if Macron wins, he could be tempted to dissolve parliament the next day, which would mean holding elections two weeks earlier than planned. Hypothetically, this could give him a chance to take advantage of the momentum of the presidential election to elect a parliament tailored to his agenda.
2. The disappearance of former presenters
One of the key things to look at in the first round of voting is how well – or poorly – France’s parties are doing.
Until 2017, French politics was dominated by two parties: the left-wing Socialist Party and the conservative Republicans (Les Républicains). Candidates from one or the other of these two parties have won all the 1958 presidential elections.
And then came the political earthquake of 2017. In this election, none of these parties qualified even for the second round. The candidate of Les Républicains was pushed out of reaching the second round by Le Pen and the Socialist candidate barely managed to get more than 6% of the vote. Emmanuel Macron won the first round and runoff as leader of a new party, La République En Marche. Macron is positioning himself at the center of the political spectrum, suffocating the two established parties.
Five years later, polls confirmed the deaths of the two dominant political parties. Unless there is an incredible surprise, the Socialist Party and Les Républicains will again be excluded from the second round. Current estimates suggest that less than 10% of voters will choose Valery Pecres of Les Républicains and only 2% – Anne Hidalgo, a socialist and mayor of Paris.
A disastrous result in the first round could mean the end of these two games.
3. The rise of extremes
Macron’s takeover of the political center is only half the story. The elimination of traditional leading parties in France has been fueled by growing political extremes, with more and more voters gravitating to the extreme left and right.
But for the first time in recent French political history, the far-right camp is divided between two candidates, the experienced presidential candidate Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, a television expert and journalist who presented himself as a rebellious far-right candidate in the 2022 election.
In one-round voting, such a division could damage the right-wing’s chances of success, but this is not the case. Surveys show that Le Pen and Eric Zemmour together will attract nearly a third of all votes. And it is still very likely that Le Pen will qualify for the runoff against Macron, during which he can be expected to attract the majority of Zemmur’s voters.
Zemmour’s campaign – with his fiery rhetoric and extreme views on migration – helped, not hindered, Le Pen in many ways. This supported Le Pen’s strategy of “normalization” in recent years, which sought to improve his party’s image and make it look more respectable.
As Bruno Cortes, a political scientist at the University of Sciences-Po in Paris, explained in a recent Guardian article: “Eric Zemmour’s radicalism softened the image of Marin Le Pen. The obvious success in Le Pen’s strategy is seen in catching up with Macron in popularity. by comparison, Macron defeated Le Pen in the second round, winning 66% of the vote.
Meanwhile, the radical left-wing is also on the rise. Veteran Jean-Luc Melanchon is the clear flag bearer of the left in his third presidential campaign. With its focus on inequality and rising living costs, it is firmly in third place in the polls with nearly 17% of the vote. Melanchon is still unlikely to replace Macron or Le Pen in the runoff. But even so, third place will provide further evidence that French voters are gravitating away from the political center.
4. Putin’s shadow
The elections in France are taking place against the backdrop of the war in Europe, which allowed voters to review the candidates’ relations with Russia.
Putting Macron aside, many of the leading candidates have shown that they like Putin before the invasion of Ukraine. Melanchon, with his strong ideological hostility to the United States, called Russia a “partner” in early 2022. Meanwhile, Zemmur called Putin a “patriot” defending Russian interests. And Le Pen took a prominent place in his photo with Putin in election leaflets in an apparent attempt to emphasize her international prestige.
After the invasion of Ukraine, most of these candidates changed their tone somewhat towards Russia and Putin or turned to other topics. Le Pen, for example, has refocused his campaign on rising living costs and the impact of sanctions on energy prices.
Current polls do not suggest that they will face significant consequences for voters over their past flirtations with the Russian president. At the very least, it doesn’t look like it will stop Le Pen from running in the runoff again, despite Macron’s late attempts to draw attention to his opponents’ condescension toward Vladimir Putin.
5. Beyond Ukraine
As the limited impact of candidates ‘attitudes toward Putin suggests, the war in Ukraine is not on top of most voters’ concerns.
With a record, high inflation in the eurozone – 5.1% this year – rising living costs have become a major source of concern for many French people. This is further complicated by other economic difficulties, such as high energy and housing costs. And these challenges are combined with other heated debates about the environment and immigration.
Although the current presidential campaign lacks key themes, there is a great shadow of apathy and cynicism. Forecasts show that today we can see nearly 30% of abstentions going to the first round of elections.
This will be the lowest turnout since 2002.
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