As Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen enter Sunday’s first round neck and neck, the political omens for France’s future look grim, says John Keiger. The traditional parties of left and right are disintegrating and June’s parliamentary elections may exacerbate instability. France could be at its most restless for decades.
Until a week before this Sunday’s first round of the presidential race the French appeared to be shunning their most important electoral contest. Polls showed that numbers of undecided voters, those likely to abstain or likely to cast a spoilt ballot was far higher than at similar periods in the past. Among the explanations were Covid and the Ukraine war giving French citizens the impression their election was being stolen from them by outside forces. A further reason was the attitude of incumbent president Emmanuel Macron. In line with his high and mighty posture since the 2017 election he has doubled down on Jupiterian aloofness. He refused to declare his candidacy until the very last moment, condescendingly shunned invitations to debate with other candidates and claimed that affairs of state were more important than election campaigning. Why bother when polls continued to give him a substantial lead over his rivals? This complacency may cost him dear with his lead shrinking in the last few days to within the margin of error.
To compound matters voting intentions show a stunning breakdown in party loyalty, most significantly with increasing fluidity and porosity between far left and right. A recent poll showed one fifth of green and left wing voters willing to cast a ballot for Marine Le Pen. When combined with the reservoir of voters to the right of Marine Le Pen, from Éric Zemmour’s camp (10%) and the sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (2%), she has the potential to win, not to mention if she attracts a fair slice of centre-right Valérie Pécresse’s electorate.
There is clear panic in the Macron camp. First from the growing possibility of a Le Pen victory. Second from the likelihood that their candidate limps over the line unconvincingly and then has no clear parliamentary majority to govern. The President of the Senate – second only to the President of the Republic in authority – stated recently that there was a strong chance that French voters would feel cheated of their election, and that consequently the victor’s legitimacy would be undermined with grave political consequences.
The 2022 French election cycle really has three stages: the presidentials, then the parliamentary elections of 12 and 19 June, and then followed by what is often called the ‘third round’, the point at which French citizens take to the streets in a ‘social round’ to vent their frustration at their choices being, in their eyes, over-ruled – a lapse of the loser’s consent essential to liberal democracy.
Already the second stage – the legislative elections — is looking extremely messy. If polls are to be believed, the two traditional parties that have governed France under the 5th Republic will disintegrate after the second round, whoever wins. On the left the Socialist candidate (Anne Hidalgo) will be wiped out with 2%, the Green candidate Yannick Jadot) a mere 6%, while the left’s reputation will be saved by the firebrand hard left Corbyn-like Jean-Luc Mélenchon (16%), whose France Unbowed party is a recent creation. So a bitter realignment on the left is beckoning over choices of constituency candidates, not to mention final seat distribution in the lower house Assemblée nationale, which could see a far more left-leaning group replacing the Socialists.
Bruising realignment is also on the cards for the right. It is looking as though the centre-right Parti Républicain – fresh from their candidate’s humiliating defeat – will split. The harder right element will broker deals with Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour’s troops for local constituencies. Moreover, these two far right groups may be able to unite and thus increase their miserly representation in parliament from the present tally of only 7 députés. That would leave Emmanuel Macron’s five-year old En Marche party – with little local party loyalty – attempting to broker deals with the rump of the Parti Républicain and the rump of the Socialist Party. This could lead to an unruly chamber whoever wins.
The so-called ‘third round’ of the electoral cycle is potentially the most destructive and dangerous. There was a foretaste of financial market panic last Tuesday when a poll put Macron and Marine Le Pen on 51.5 and 48.5% (within the margin of error). It led major French Bourse stocks to drop by 5% and for French bond spreads to widen. But the greatest uncertainty is the street. On 6 April a highly respected 16,500 sample opinion survey evidenced citizens’ frustration at the absence of a proper campaign: 37% felt proximity to ‘an angry and very militant France’ and 55% declared themselves ‘aggrieved’. It is a truism that the French have a penchant for the barricade, but the traditional seething dissatisfaction post presidentials appears to be growing and none more so than since Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017. A feeling that elections always disappoint is becoming more pervasive. Added to that is fear of violent social unrest igniting in the banlieues in the event of a Marine Le Pen victory.
Under the Second Empire the radical polemicist Henri Rochefort joked at the unsettled nature of French citizens: ‘France contains 36 million subjects, without counting the subjects of dissatisfaction’. Whatever the outcome on Sunday France is likely to be at its most restless for decades.