French Election Special Edition — Revue de Presse: April 10, 2022
French President Emmanuel Macron has graced the pages of the likes of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal many times in recent weeks, but not for the reasons one might have expected knowing that the presidential election is this weekend. Americans have most likely seen him portrayed as a tireless diplomat working to avert further crisis in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rather than a head of state fighting to keep his job.
This coverage itself is a bit of a feat. Given that France is a major ally of the United States, it is shocking how little French politics is featured in American news media, unless of course it happens to be Paris fashion week, Roland Garros, or a major international summit. For the importance that Americans give to “Frenchness” — the cultural cache of luxury, a gastronomic heaven, a primary tourist destination, and a fondness for interwoven historical legacy — Americans know very little about the actual goings-on in French politics. Le Monde’s launch of its English-language version this week seems to be an attempt to combat this void.
Still, Macron fashioned himself a role during the Ukraine crisis that has served him well in both the international sphere and the domestic one. Even when filing the paperwork to be included on the ballot just a month ago, Macron was the last to file, making a point that he had more important things to focus on in the middle of an international crisis and bolstering his legitimacy as head of state in the process.
But that does not take away from the fact that this French President faces his own domestic fate this weekend on April 10, and news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic have finally caught on to the newsworthiness of that fact.
The coverage, of course, has been wildly divergent.
Within the pages of Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation, and practically every other French outlet, election analysis was robust. Focused on a number of key developments, most outlets aimed to explain the recent slump in last minute polling for Macron paired with the sharp increase in support for both the far-right wing candidate Marine Le Pen and far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Yet the placement is interesting. Le Monde, for example, did not even carry explicit election coverage in the primary slot on the front page above the fold until Saturday, 24 hours before the French are due to cast their first ballots. The newspaper’s headline that day unironically referred to the risk of abstention being primary concern in the first round, when only two other days this week did the country’s presidential election make it above the fold at all. Even as more news media is digitally-driven, therefore decreasing the impact of the paper’s physical layout, in a culture where visible newspaper stands are still common, the calculations of what stories are considered best to sell papers is noteworthy.
A consensus regarding the shift in polling is difficult to pinpoint in a media market that is as varied as the multi-party French political system, yet discussions in French media this week seem to have coalesced around a few different narratives.
The first is the impact of the L’Affaire McKinsey. After a Senate inquiry earlier this month found that the Macron government had spent double the amount of public money per year to private (primarily American) consulting firms, especially McKinsey, the findings have continued to plague Macron. The inquiry also raised suspicion about McKinsey’s tax practices and exorbitant prices. Further investigations have been launched, but the affair has certainly done little to alleviate Macron’s image as someone too close to business interests and too far from the needs of average French people. Le Pen and Mélenchon have certainly capitalized on this opportunity so close to election day, focusing on their more populist messaging as a point of contrast.
Second is that Macron’s earlier bet on the importance of his diplomatic image seems to be diminishing, instead being used by his opponents to shape him as someone who, in his effort to manage Russian aggression has lost track of the cost to French people. Voters are particularly concerned about rising gas prices, which easily snowballs into other economic concerns that face struggling French citizens, such as rising inflation. Once again, it is not difficult to imagine that Macron’s opponents have gladly used these concerns to turn some of Macron’s arguably more popular traits (his presence on the international stage and his support for the EU are two good examples) into domestic liabilities, foregrounding a disconnect with French workers and their needs but also eroding his message as an agent of change and progress.
Yet, across both the Channel and the ocean, the (recently) interested anglophone media has come away this week with different messages.
In The Guardian this week, Macron’s France is posited as one where “La Vie est Belle.” According to the prominent British newspaper, this version of France under Macron is uniquely positioned to weather the looming energy crisis due to its heavy reliance on nuclear power, has a GDP that has enviably exceeded its pre-pandemic levels, and notably higher labor market performance.
In the New York Times Magazine, the week started with an analytical deep dive into the evolution of the right and far right in France. Illuminated in America’s “newspaper of record,” was not only how the populous, islamophobic origins of the far-right go back to De Gaulle and the French role in the Algerian War; but also arguing that the threads of the intellectual, bourgeois right-wing can be traced to the Catholic aristocracy, still skeptical of the universalism promised by the republic. Much of the U.S. coverage this week has attempted to explain Le Pen and the rise of the far right, casting any threat to Macron as the inevitable consequence of the French electorate’s slow march right-ward, despite its dangers. In these narratives, Macron has almost appeared almost as a victim, faultless despite his best efforts over the last five years to keep France “on track” while the fallout from Brexit and the Trump years have overwhelmed the politics of France’s anglophone allies.
But when French voters go to the polls, they will vote for whoever seems best positioned to fight for their priorities. The trouble is that understanding their calculations takes more than a deluge of last minute political takes.