Five years ago, Macron opted for a risky strategy, betting on conquering a space at the centre of the political spectrum without a supporting party. Centrist candidates were usually unable to win, with their electorate tipping the balance in favour of the left or the right depending on the prevailing mood and/or the personality of the two remaining candidates in the second round. Macron won his bet and, as a consequence, helped accelerate the decay of the traditional parties. The left was in poor shape due to the many Hollande failures; while the right, challenged by Le Pen, collapsed due to its internal divisions and accusations of the unethical behaviour of its candidate, François Fillon.
The situation for those seeking to challenge the current President has not improved over the past 5 years - far from it. Neither the left nor the right has managed to seriously review the reasons for defeat and to rejuvenate their programmes. Their main objective has been to try to identify the ways and means to designate their own candidate, which is equal to putting the cart before the horse. The only candidate in the 2022 competition who has made any serious attempt to revise her proposals in case of victory has been Marine Le Pen. In order to appear as a “moderate” candidate, little by little she has erased or softened the most controversial measures she proposed in 2017 (for instance the reform of pensions or French membership in the EU or Eurozone). Her initial efforts have been successful, both in terms of form and substance, in preparing this U-turn. Her expectation is she will seduce and absorb part of the Republican party.
The surprise came from another corner. By becoming or pretending to be moderate, she left space for more radical supporters who were disappointed by what some see as undue compromises. A radical outsider, a polemist and a journalist voicing extreme-right views, Éric Zemmour, popped up suddenly and immediately received huge support in the media-sponsored daily polls, although these do entail some risk of voters being lost or puzzled by slightly divergent outcomes due to the variations in samples, methodology and questions. Nonetheless, the rather astonishing surge of Zemmour, a candidate who has never entered politics before, has to be explained by several factors. First, as already said, Marine Le Pen had inadvertently opened a space on her right by adopting a more moderate stance. Second, Zemmour was not an unknown political figure. For years, he had repeatedly expressed highly nationalistic, nativist, anti-immigrant views in Le Figaro Magazine, the most right-wing weekly. More recently, Bolloré - the tycoon who has taken over various media corporations (newspapers, radio and TV networks) - offered him a daily tribune on one of his channels. Third, the radicalness of his views has made it easy for some of the old and new components of the extreme-right (conservative Catholics, nostalgic pétainists or colonialists, radical yellow vests, nativists and anti-migrants) to join him, in particular, those members of the Rassemblement National (RN) that disagree with Marine Le Pen’s chosen strategy. Several MEPs, MPs or high-profile members of the party (including Marion Le Pen, the niece of the RN leader) have rallied around Zemmour. What initially was considered as a serious challenge to Le Pen’ chances and leadership might become an opportunity in the second round since Zemmour will not reach that stage of the competition and most of his followers will vote then for Marine Le Pen. Together they represent at least one-third of the electorate.
This new landscape on the extreme-right could have favoured the candidates from Republicans, a party which was dominant, under various names and leaders, from the beginning of the Fifth Republic up to the Macron’s election. While the most moderate part of the party had rallied behind Macron in 2017, the rest was deeply divided between various chapels and leaders, none being able to gather together activists or electorate. However, the party managed to organise a kind of internal primary where every faction had a chance to express its views and preferences. The process was quite smooth and successful and ended with the selection of Valéry Pécresse, a moderate and experienced politician, and president of the biggest and wealthiest region, the Paris region (Ile de France). However, the biggest challenge for her was to forge a narrow path between Macron and the remains of the traditional right since a large fraction had rallied behind Macron together with former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. She has failed in her attempt and has lost her chance to attract both voters from the extreme right and those more moderate voters who have remained faithful to the incumbent President. One can foresee again a major realignment after the presidential election to the advantage of both the extreme right and Macron’s supporters.
The earthquake might be even more dramatic for a left in pieces after the collapse of the socialist party in 2017 and its incapacity to rethink its strategy and programme. There are no less than six candidates to represent the “50 nuances of red” of the left: two Trotskyist candidates who might expect to get 2.5 or 3% of the vote; the socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, who might end her “via crucis” with 2 or 3%, behind the communist party candidate, who is getting 4 to 5 % in the most recent polls. The only candidate emerging from that morass is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the populist tribune who is polling at 15% of the vote to date. His ambition – difficult to achieve - is to run for the second round and to eliminate Le Pen. Finally, the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot has been unable to convince a party and electorate divided between radicals and moderates. The polls have him winning 5 to 7% of the vote. There is no doubt that no leftist candidate can make it and that a major reshuffle of “what is left from the left” will be the order of the day in the months and years to come.
At that stage, the most probable scenario will be a déjà vu duel between Macron and Le Pen. The surprise would be the rise of Mélenchon and the elimination of an extreme right split between two contenders. In both cases, one can observe 1) the dominance of the protest parties (half of the electorate) and the polarisation of a fragile and unstable party system, 2) the collapse of the left of government due to the lack of an attractive set of ideas or programme as well as of a leader capable of subsuming deep divisions and antagonisms, and 3) the paradox of solid institutions void of a strong consensus among the general population.