The people of France will vote on 10 and 24 April to elect their President of the Republic. Not a day passes without the publication of a new poll of voting intentions, which attracts the commentary of journalists as soon as it is released. A growing number of radio and television broadcasts are filling the airwaves. There’s a flood of activity on social media. However, the French are showing little interest in the election, to the extent that TF1, France’s most-watched television channel, announced that on the day of the first round, instead of organising the usual long evening of results and commentary, it would condense its coverage into an hour and a half, and then broadcast one of France’s best-loved films. As at the end of March, only 65% of voters seemed committed to taking part in the election. And of those who express their voting intentions, some are still saying that they are willing to change: this is true of 63% of voters for Yannick Jadot, the Green candidate, and 45% of voters for Valérie Pécresse, the right-wing Republican party candidate. This presidential election is looking uncertain.
Firstly, there is considerable uncertainty over where each of the 12 contenders for the presidency will rank at the end of the first round, although two of them – one on the extreme right and one eclectic man who defies classification – have only a walk-on part.
Six men and women claim to represent the left, which is polling at an exceptionally low level. The only one with a clear margin is Jean-Luc Mélenchon (whose poll ratings stand at just over 14-16%), who might cause a surprise. The two Trotskyist candidates stand at about 1%, while Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party representative, is stagnating at around 2-3%, which is a disaster for the party that dominated French political life from 1970 to 2017. What’s more, Fabien Roussel, the Communist candidate, may be a few points ahead of her, even though his party has been largely outpaced by the Socialist Party since 1978. Yannick Jadot, who is scoring 5-7% in the polls, is in a disappointing position after the success of the Greens in recent regional and municipal elections.
The far right is split between Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the journalist Eric Zemmour, but the polls suggest that they hold around 30% share of the vote between them. With poll ratings of roughly 21%, Ms Le Pen is standing up firmly to the assaults of Mr Zemmour, who is now scoring 10-11% in the polls. Valérie Pécresse is suffering from the fact that she has to perform the delicate balancing act of trying to appeal to the sovereigntist right without alienating the moderate right: there is no longer any certainty at all that she will reach the second round. Should she fail to do so, it could spell the death of her party. That would mark the end of a cycle characterised by the contest between the two major parties of government, the Republicans and the Socialist Party.
With poll ratings of 25%, Emmanuel Macron is the front-runner. With his duties of office and the international situation taking up most of his time, he is running an intermittent, hyper-personalised campaign, all the more so because he does not have a real party behind him, having never chosen to build one. He is standing on a platform of right-leaning economic proposals on pensions and the conditionality of welfare, and some left-leaning proposals on society.
While talking about national sovereignty more than he used to, he is playing the pro-European card to full effect, as he has consistently done since entering politics in 2016, and he is leveraging his Presidency of the European Union to split the left and right even more. He is calling for some sort of second stimulus package and, above all, is in favour of a European defence force. In this regard, in keeping with his signature of the Quirinal Treaty on November 26, he is continuing to build a strong relationship with the government of Mario Draghi.
He is at the forefront of the war in Ukraine, showing unflinching support for sanctions against Russia, while at the same time maintaining relations with Vladimir Putin as far as possible, in an attempt to sketch out a diplomatic solution to the conflict. In this respect, he is benefiting from the “flag effect”, as the French, who are massively concerned about the conflict, rally behind the Head of State, who is at the nation’s controls and gives the perception of being its great protector.
Does this mean it’s all done and dusted, and Emmanuel Macron will be re-elected without much difficulty, especially if he comes up against Marine Le Pen again? Caution is warranted, as always in elections. However, if there was a second-round run-off between these two, polls suggest that the incumbent would win with 53% of the vote, in other words 14 percentage points less than in 2017. His record does not elicit unanimous approval, his handling of the pandemic is criticised, and entire segments of the working-class population on both left and right hate or even detest him in a way not experienced by any of his predecessors.
This presidential election is taking place against a deleterious backdrop. Normally, the French like this election, but the steady increase in abstention that has been going on for decades has not spared the presidential election, although it has fared a degree or two better than other elections. So what’s going to happen this time? In view of the considerable disaffection for politics and distrust of political leaders, the presidential election will not dispel this deep democratic malaise with the wave of a magic wand. On the contrary, the President-elect will have immense difficulty in presenting him or herself as the President of all French people. And while these people are extremely concerned about the war, they are also and now more concerned about their purchasing power, which will be the main driver of their vote. They fear the consequences of the sanctions imposed on Russia and the severe impact that the war in Ukraine will have on oil, gas and food prices, as inflation rises. The truth is that the country is deeply fractured and exasperated to the point that a significant number of French people believe that recourse to violence is understandable. And all this comes at a time when France is facing colossal global challenges, such as global warming and the strategic threats that the war in Ukraine has now made clearly visible to all, as well as others of its own, of an economic, financial and social nature.