Why Emmanuel Macron’s reelection hangs on him winning support from the very people he has ignored most.
This month’s French presidential election is giving off a strong sense of déjà vu. As in 2017 and 2002, a center-right presidential candidate (this time, current president Emmanuel Macron) faces off in the second round against a far-right candidate (Marine Le Pen) in a showdown widely seen as a broader referendum on republicanism, laicité, and democracy.
Under France’s electoral system, a candidate must gain more than 50 percent of the overall vote to win the election, either in a first round against multiple candidates or, if needed (and it is usually needed), in a second-round runoff between the two top candidates of the first round. This means that, on the one hand, voters are making their choices based on strategic as much as ideological calculations (what the French have come to call “le vote utile”), but on the other hand, France thankfully avoids such outcomes such as Donald Trump becoming president while losing the popular vote and having an approval rating of only roughly 40 percent on the day of his victory. For better or worse, every French president takes, or retakes, office having gained the votes of more than half the electorate, avoiding the sort of legitimacy problems that afflict U.S. or British democracy, for example.
Five years ago, then 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in the government of Socialist president François Hollande, emerged, deus ex machina fashion, to gather enough votes from disaffected supporters of the imploding Socialist Party and the traditional center-right to propel himself into the second round and soundly defeat Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally), the newly rebranded version of the far-right party originally led by her estranged father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Twenty years ago, in 2002, it was that father, more straightforwardly fascistic and antisemitic, who shocked polite society and the wider world by advancing into the second round, where he was trounced by the sitting president, Jacques Chirac. Then, as happened in 2017 and is happening now, French elites and their counterparts abroad called on the French citizenry to reject the extreme right and to keep the fascists out of power, and framed the vote for the center-right candidate as a vote for tolerance and the Republic over reaction, hate, and racism. Then as now, most analysts and media commentators, and many experts, refused to confront why this dynamic was happening in the first place.
This time around, specifically, the French electorate is being forced to choose between Macron, a president who is strongly loved by his base (older and wealthier voters, people in the corporate sector) and largely disliked (or barely tolerated) by every other group of voters, and Le Pen, who crushed her rivals on the right and, according to polls, has a higher chance of winning the presidency than she did five years ago.
How did France arrive at this point, where a woman broadly seen as a fascist politician stands at the brink of victory? Many analysts believe that this is the scenario Macron was hoping for during the past five years: a duel he believed would serve him well—a head-to-head contest against an anti-Europe xenophobe who is not particularly good at debating, that would once again allow him to present himself as the responsible choice, the adult in the room, the voice of sanity protecting France from extremism and chaos. Macron—who barely campaigned at all for the first round and refused to participate in a debate, attempting to portray himself as “above the fray”—may turn out to have been right, and polls still show him winning in the second round, though hardly as decisively as he did in 2017.
This is to some extent a result of general trends in French society, and in the world, but also a product of his own governance. Macron spent the last five years pandering to the right. Some of his own ministers (many of them shockingly incompetent) happily participated in imported U.S.-style “culture wars,” bemoaning wokeisme and islamogauchisme (both terms are nonsensically detached from French realities). One of them, Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, clownishly went on television and told Le Pen that he found her “too soft” on the issues of immigration and Islam, which are the cornerstones of her brand. (Le Pen’s visible astonishment at being told that she is not as bigoted and racist as she ought to be, or used to be, was comically memorable.)
On other issues, it was clear that Macron, as president, completely took for granted the left-wing voters who helped elect him in 2017 and was strictly concerned with trying to triangulate the right-wing parties and win over their voters. His main strengths coming into the election, according to polling, were his handling of the covid-19 crisis (although France has had one of the highest rates of covid infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in the world, the government’s policies of providing subsidies and financial support to businesses and people, and issuing the passe sanitaire while mostly keeping schools open, proved popular) and his more recent stance on the Russian attack on Ukraine. (Le Pen’s cozying up to Putin over the years may turn out to be her undoing.) But he is almost singularly responsible for the main problem that he faces in the second round: abstention. According to polls, Le Pen’s best chance of winning are the huge numbers of citizens who say they plan to either select a blank ballot or stay home altogether.
The reality of the first-round results is that it was largely a three-way split: Macron with 27.8 percent, Le Pen with 23 percent, and left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (of La France Insoumise) with 22 percent. Since the media in the United States and Britain largely ignore this third group, or simply conflate it with Le Pen’s constituency, it is worth looking at it in some focus. To a large extent, the fate of Macron’s presidency—and much else—is now in the hands of these voters.
Mélenchon can best be described as a “left-wing populist,” and his most sympathetic comments about world leaders are usually reserved for certain contemporary Latin American heads of state that make liberals and conservatives in the West see red. To some extent, Mélenchon’s rise in French politics is the product of the collapse, at the national level, of the Socialist Party, of which he used to be a member (and whose candidate in the first-round, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, received less than 2 percent of the vote, an incredible result for a party that for several decades was either in power or close to it).
The Socialists, like Labour in the United Kingdom or the Democrats in the United States, began to happily adopt neoliberalism and upper-crust identity politics beginning in the 1980s and gradually lost touch with working-class voters, many of whom drifted rightward and ended up in Le Pen’s camp, forming her most reliable constituency. But many such disaffected voters, including those in large cities, and especially young people and immigrants, reject xenophobia and reactionary politics and continue to insist on traditional left-wing issues such as economic inequality, workers’ rights, police brutality, racism, discrimination, and multiculturalism. These are the people who formed the base of Mélenchon’s camp and nearly brought him to the second round.
Elite media and analysts typically view Mélenchon and Le Pen as representing two sides of the same coin, the expression of “resentments” and grievances against the expertise and centrism of Macron. They worry that irresponsible young people, not bothering to distinguish between neoliberalism and fascism, will help deliver the presidency to Le Pen. But only people unfamiliar with how most French people live can limit themselves to this frame of analysis. It absolves Macron and other elites from their personal and political responsibility for the current situation. This is the same media that fantasized for two years that Eric Zemmour, a charlatan who likened himself to Trump and was constantly on TV selling his books and espousing far-right internet conspiracy theories, including warning about a “great replacement” through Muslim and African immigration, had a decent chance of winning the presidency. Zemmour wound up with single-digit support; voters on the right clearly preferred a candidate (Le Pen) offering fake solutions to real problems over a candidate offering fake solutions to fake problems.
Macron’s mistake, which is catching up to him now, is that during the five years of his presidency he did not devote any of his time or energy to the issues that matter to the sorts of people who wound up supporting Mélenchon, effectively alienating himself from a third of the electorate, including people he now needs to defeat Le Pen. His strategy of sounding right-wing on various cultural issues backfired: Instead of smothering Le Pen, as he thought, it ended up empowering her, making her views—which haven’t really changed even as her image has softened—seem more mainstream and acceptable than ever. Macron was happy to take votes from the center-left and govern from the right, including ramping up austerity measures in education, health care, and public services, favoring the private sector while pleasing liberals with his staunch support of the European Union and international institutions. Some of his critics have accused him of displaying an authoritarian streak, favoring far-reaching anti-terror measures and allowing police forces to brutalize protesters and dissent, all while presenting himself as one of Western democracy’s last hopes.
On the night of the first round, as the results came in, most of the reactions from defeated candidates were predictable—from Valérie Pécresse on the conservative right (arguably the biggest failure of the election, with 4.8 percent of the vote) to Communist Party candidate Fabian Roussel, they endorsed voting in the second round for Macron as the “responsible” choice. Mélenchon’s speech was different. Widely criticized (by centrists) in 2017 for refusing, after his first-round defeat, to endorse Macron over Le Pen in the second round, saying his voters could tell right from wrong, this time he theatrically said, three times, “Do not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen.” But he did not say: “Vote for Macron.” The distinction is important.
Since he will not have the direct debate with Macron over the issues that his supporters care about most, Mélenchon instead wants to force Macron to try, for the first time, to convince young people, poor people, working-class people, immigrants, city people, to vote for him, and not to take them for granted as he has thus far. Le Pen will surely make a play for these voters, or at least try to get them to avoid voting for Macron. Macron’s chance of winning depends on his ability to convince enough Mélenchon voters to vote for him, and that means convincing them that he will be a decidedly different president in his second term than he was in his first. One thing is certain, though: If Le Pen defeats Macron, elites will blame Mélenchon’s voters for failing to fulfill their role in the neoliberal order, which is to be contemptuously and continuously ignored and then called on, every five years, to save the Republic from fascism.
Moshik Temkin is a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His books include The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2011) and Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership in History (forthcoming).
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