A Panel Response: What to Take Away from the First Round of the French Elections?

11 April 2022

To debrief the first round of the French presidential elections, Tocqueville 21 has invited a distinguished set of academics, journalists, and commentators on French politics to provide their thoughts on what we just witnessed as well as what to expect as the second round approaches.

 


 

The Perils of Governing for Elite Interests – Elisabeth Zerofsky

It would be something of an embarrassment for the members of Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Rally, who abandoned her over the past months in favor of her rival, on the conviction that she would never win, if this were the year that Le Pen Présidente finally came to be. In recent reporting that I’ve done in France, the line that I often heard about Le Pen, from former party members as well as voters, was that, consciously or unconsciously, as one of them said to me, Le Pen had “become part of the system,” because “whichever candidate finds himself facing her in the second round, wins.”

Of course, their conviction, despite her record score yesterday, may still prove correct. In interviews for my recent New York Times Magazine story on intra-rightwing power struggles, I spoke with longtime operatives on the right who shared with me a number of critical points against Le Pen, which held true in yesterday’s vote: first, that older voters do not like Marine Le Pen, for historical reasons, and they are the ones who actually vote in France (just over 50% of 18-34-year-olds went to the polls yesterday; for those over 50, the voting rate is 80% or above and they go overwhelmingly for Macron); and, secondly, that Marine Le Pen has established her base among working-class voters from across the ideological spectrum, and these voters are also more likely to abstain (there was a 34% abstention rate among the lowest-income voters in France yesterday, vs. 23% among the highest earners, who also support Macron). The conclusion, not a judgment but merely an observation, was that a candidate could not win the presidency of France without getting at least a part of the elite behind them. Le Pen failed to do that yesterday.

This dynamic helps explains the wacky poll numbers in the last three weeks, which were very clearly an effect of the catastrophic Russian invasion of Ukraine: the vote share for Eric Zemmour, a noted Putin admirer, was rising until the war started at the end of February, when his numbers started to plummet and didn’t stop. For Marine Le Pen, also a Putin fan though she managed to bury that fact beneath her campaign against rising costs of living, the war sent prices soaring in mid-March, and her poll numbers too. Macron’s government set price limits on electricity and gas, so they have risen only 4% (in Germany, by contrast, electricity prices are up to 8 times higher than last spring). But Le Pen’s working-class voters, not Macron’s leisure-class voters, are the ones to feel that 4%. (Jean-Luc Mélénchon, the other economic populist, was only a point and a half behind Le Pen.)

I’m not a pollster, but my understanding is that in order for Le Pen to win the second round on April 24, she would need to offset these disadvantages with very high abstentions among the leftwing voters who would normally form a front against her by voting for Macron—not impossible, but still a tall order. As for Macron, sometimes called “president of the rich,” governing for elite interests might be a successful re-election strategy in the short term, but it’s bad for the country and bad for democracy. Of this we can be sure. Though, who can say what form of expression those damages might take.

Elisabeth Zerofsky is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, based in Berlin. She has written widely on European politics, with a focus on France.

 


 

No Alarms and No Surprises? – Emile Chabal

The most striking thing about this first round was how predictable it was. For seasoned observers, the distribution of votes followed well-worn patterns, except perhaps Pécresse’s terrible score. Mélenchon did a little better than expected, as did Macron. Le Pen achieved her main aim of getting to the second round, without really making a huge breakthrough. Zemmour flopped – as the polls suggested he would—and the rest all failed to get more than 5%. So far, so normal, right?

Actually, that’s not quite true. The very fact that this election was so “normal” is a sign of how much the political landscape has shifted since 2017. Most foreign commentators remain fixated on the progression of the far-right, but this has been coming for decades, and does not really represent any kind of novelty in France. More remarkable is the speed with which French voters have recalibrated their expectation and understanding of the electoral cycle.

For example, the collapse of the “traditional” parties has led to a sharp divergence between national elections and local or regional ones. The former are increasingly dominated by Macron-style parties-for-the-person, whereas the latter remain governed by complex negotiations between traditional political parties. French voters now seem entirely comfortable with distributing their votes across parties and candidates for different elections.

Equally noteworthy is the de facto restoration of a bipolar political system. The Macron-Le Pen duopoly has now durably reshaped the French presidential system, with both of these figures representing the “vote utile” for their respective political families. Meanwhile, Mélenchon’s impressive performance confirms him (and the left more generally) in the role of eternal “challenger”, rather like the French communists in their heyday. This is not a bipolarity structured around parties – as it was in the 1980s and 1990s—but instead one that works through presidential candidates.

One of the consequences of this bipolarity is that Marine Le Pen has, almost by default, been normalised. She represents the “opposition” and therefore has much greater pulling power across the political spectrum than before. Even if a victory on 24 April seems very unlikely, she may well cross the symbolic bar of 40%, which would bring her closer to the credibility she desperately craves.

At the same time, the speed with which the French electorate adapted to this new political configuration poses a unique risk to the two candidates fighting to win this election. Both Macron and Le Pen have failed to institutionalize their success. Their parties have systematically underperformed in local and regional elections, and they have struggled to transcend their image as vehicles for presidential campaigns. How long can Macronism survive without Macron? What happens when the Le Pen dynasty falls? If this electoral cycle is anything to go by, there could be some significant realignments coming very soon.

Emile Chabal is a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. He is a specialist of postwar French and European history. He has published widely on contemporary French politics and intellectual history, from major scholarly monographs to newspaper op-eds.

 


 

The More Things Remain the Same, the More They Change – Michael Behrent

The first round of the 2022 presidential election shows that French politics is undergoing a profound transformation that may foretell similar changes in other democracies. As the first round’s results make clear, the dramatic changes that transpired in the 2017 election were not one-time affairs, but harbingers of a new political dispensation.

That the main upshot of the first round has been predictable for some time should not obscure its extraordinary character. Yes, this year’s second round will be a repeat of 2017, with President Emmanuel Macron facing Marine Le Pen of the National Rally. Still, it is remarkable that the runoff will be between a candidate representing a centrist party that did not exist six years ago and the head of a party commonly described as “far right” which, for decades, was deemed beyond the electoral pale. More French presidential races this century have now involved runoffs between a center-right and far-right candidate (2002, 2017, 2022—assuming, that is, that one can describe Macron as “center right”) than between a center-right and center-left candidate (2007 and 2012).

Meanwhile, the center-right and center-left, already on life support after 2017, were dealt blows so severe this year that they may never recover from them. Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains received 4.8%, and Anne Hidalgo of the Socialist Party garnered 1.7% (coming in ninth out of twelve candidates). It is hard to imagine the Democrats or Republicans—or Labor and the Conservatives—receiving such scores. The analogy is not perfect, but this is roughly where France finds itself. Whether these parties can survive is a question they will debate in the months ahead.

The difference between 2017 and 2022 is that this time, voters expected a repeat and cast their ballot accordingly. The idea of a “vote utile”—a vote for a candidate who has a chance of winning—has been around for some time, but this is the first time it applied in a context that is no longer (entirely) shaped by the left-right confrontation. Le Pen decisively defeated a challenge to her right from Éric Zemmour, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise emerged as the left’s uncontested leader, coming within striking distance of beating Le Pen. This year, Macron (running for his second time), Le Pen, and Mélenchon (each running for their third time) each got their best result ever. They all had reason to celebrate on election night. Nearly 15% separated the candidate in third place from the one in fourth place, suggesting voters abandoned the “small candidates” for those considered electable.

Though the new political spectrum resembles the old left-right divide in some ways, it is ultimately very different. Rather than representing alternative conceptions of the government’s role and economic policy, the new divide pits those who think the status quo basically works against those who want a new status quo altogether. The former, represented by Macron, is pro-Europe and favors market-based reforms; the latter, led by Le Pen, believes that the nation state must abandon other commitments so that it can focus on protecting its citizens and only its citizens.

The 50% of the French electorate that did not vote for either Macron or Le Pen (starting with Mélenchon’s share, about 22%) will have to decide whether they accept stability paired with high tolerance level for social inequality—the Macron option—or a more populist politics that makes foreigners second-class citizens and wanders into unchartered waters—the Le Pen option. Whether one misses left-right contests or not, it seems unlikely that the emerging system will be able to generate the consensus needed for effective government.

Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University (North Carolina).

 


 

A Farcical Replay of April 2002 for France’s Promisingly Strong Left – Harrison Stetler

It didn’t need to turn out this way. I’m tired of writing and thinking about the French right so I’ll discuss the only thing on my mind right now, a bit after midnight on April 11th: the French left.

As I’m signing off, leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon finds himself, according to a late-night update to voting projections, within .8 percentage points of qualification for the second round. There are many things one might find unsavory about the leader of La France insoumise: how he runs his own political formation; a certain myopia on Russia and other authoritarian regimes; an obsessive anti-Americanism; a lack of realism on nuclear energy. But for at least the last two months, he has been the undeniable front-runner among the groupings to Macron’s left. Those forces, we now know, were well within reach of qualifying for the second round—and defying what had long been written off as a certain replay of 2017.

Yannick Jadot, Anne Hidalgo and Fabien Roussel are most responsible for what is in fact a farcical replay of 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, first qualified for a presidential runoff. The Greens and the Socialists, who allied in the 2017 election, boast a comparable score to Benoît Hamon’s 2017 showing of 6.36 percent. This year, however, the PS and the Greens had their eyes set on hypothetical reconfigurations after 2022. Pre-calculating a defeat, they aimed to position their forces as eventual (When? one might ask) repositories for figures on the more progressive wing of the Macronist majority.

This was an extraordinarily cynical calculation. It will again force voters to choose between incumbent Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen in a contest that will most certainly be closer than 2017. If Macron holds on to power in two Sundays, Jadot’s and the PS’s gambit will have, at best, locked France into another five years of cat-and-mouse between Macron and the broader French right. Shame on them.

“Mélenchonism” is one of the dominant poles in the emerging tripartite partisan system. This is probably Jean-Luc’s last campaign, which is also probably for the better. But ecological planning (the French “Green New Deal”), a democratic refoundation of the presidentialized 5th Republic, police reform, security deflation, a softer laïcité, and a clear rupture from austerity have a critical mass of support in the public debate. In post-election discussions between the leading left-wing formations, the radical reformism supported by 22.2% of voters on Sunday must negotiate from a position of strength.

Harrison Stetler is an independent journalist and teacher living in Paris. He has written for The New York Times, New York Review of Books, The Nation, Jacobin, Mediapart and other French and American publications

 


 

A Death Foretold: the End of the French Party System – Jacob Hamburger

The most striking thing about the 2022 first-round election results is how similar they are to the scores from five years prior. Since Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017, French politics have been in constant upheaval. 2018 and 2019 saw the rise of the gilets jaunes and one of the largest strikes in the country’s history, both movements directed squarely against Macron’s signature policies. The second half of Macron’s first quinquennat has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted almost everything about daily life in ways that hardly need to be elaborated, and drastically altered Macron’s approach to French and European social policy. And in recent weeks, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine brought war back to the European continent, and put Macron’s France in a key diplomatic position. But when French voters went to the polls this Sunday, they selected three out of the four top candidates from 2017, with relatively similar shares of the vote (accounting for a modest boost for Macron as the incumbent, and Mélenchon’s almost-successful effort to win over PS and EELV voters to edge out Le Pen).

This election is therefore the confirmation that the French party system is dead—a death that was foretold already in the decimation of the Parti Socialiste five years ago. During and after the 2017 race, there was much discussion of the emergence of “movements” as opposed to, and often in opposition to, traditional political parties. These movements are typically led by a single charismatic figure, and prefer fostering direct engagement by supporters to building internal party infrastructure or local political machinery. This is a form of political organization that Anton Jäger has identified as a typical feature of twenty-first-century “hyperpolitics,” and as traditional political parties across Europe—particularly on the social-democratic left—have faltered, figures in the mold of Macron, Le Pen, or Mélenchon have come to replace them.

It is remarkable that this trend, already apparent in 2017, has proved so durable despite the extraordinary events of recent years. Despite the dramatic effect of the pandemic on policymaking as well as so much of ordinary people’s lives, its effect was not to bring about a new kind of politics. Instead, it seems that Covid-19 only temporarily interrupted a political transformation that was already underway. Regardless of who wins two weeks from now, Sunday’s results are deeply revealing about the character—or at least the form—of French politics in the twenty-first century.

Jacob Hamburger is the co-founder and blog editor emeritus of Tocqueville 21. He has published widely on transatlantic intellectual history and French politics in publications such as Le Monde, Libération, Charlie Hebdo, Dissent, Jacobin, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, and The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville.

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