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The Forthcoming French Presidential Elections

17 Mar 2022
By Peter McPhee AM
French President Macron outlines to Members of European Parliament on 19th January 2022 the main goals and the political strategy for France’s semester steering the EU. Source: European Parliament, Flickr,

The two rounds of the French presidential election will be run on 10 and 24 April. Faced with a splintered opposition to both right and left, Emmanuel Macron is highly likely to win a second five-year term.

In May 2017, Emmanuel Macron became president of the Fifth French Republic by a percentage margin of about 65:35 over Marine Le Pen. Aged just 39, he was France’s youngest leader since Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor aged 35 in 1804. In one month’s time, France will decide who will be its next president. Will it be Macron again, Valérie Pécresse, Le Pen, or another of the 12 candidates who will contest the first round of the elections on 10 April 2022? If no-one wins an outright majority — and that is virtually impossible — the two front-runners will face off a fortnight later on 24 April  in the second round.

On 7 March, the Constitutional Council published the names of the candidates who had cleared the hurdle of obtaining 500 valid sponsorships — that is, signatures of people currently holding elected positions in France, such as mayors or deputies in the National Assembly. The centre-right President Macron will face three main challengers, all from the right: Pécresse, Le Pen, and Éric Zemmour. There are two other right-of-centre candidates with minimal chances: Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Jean Lassalle.

Pécresse, president of the regional council of the Ile­-de­-France around Paris, will represent the main right-of-centre party, the former Gaullist party now known as Les Républicains. The far-right vote will be divided between Le Pen, who has changed her party’s name from Front National to Rassemblement National (National Rally), and Zemmour, a popular columnist for Le Figaro and author of the best-selling 2014 polemic Le Suicide français. Both Le Pen and Zemmour are campaigning on stronger policing, hostility to both the supranational powers of the European Union and the “Islamisation” of France, and appeals to “freedom,” including the right not to be vaccinated.

Left-of-centre parties have also been unable to agree on a single candidate to challenge Macron, so the green and left vote will be splintered between two Trotskyists — Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou— the left socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the environmentalist Yannick Jadot, the Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel, and the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo. Polls showing that Hidalgo, the current mayor of Paris, will receive only about 2.5 percent of the vote highlight the collapse of the party that François Hollande represented in the presidential Élysée Palace from 2012 to 2017.

While Macron has a generally positive image outside France as the articulate voice of liberal democracy and globalism, within France his liberalism is more often criticised as technocratic and socially elitist. His attempts to loosen labour laws and reduce pension entitlements have been seen as an attack on the French “social model” and have alienated many left-of-centre voters who supported him in 2017. In 2018-19 he faced the popular rancour of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), those disaffected by their sense of being left behind by cost-of-living increases, globalisation, and the rule of technocratic élites. His promise to listen to the voices of protest coming from the gilets jaunes seems not to have resulted in concrete actions.

As is often the case with incumbents, however, Macron has benefited from being in power during an international crisis. There was broad support for his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though France’s death rate — 2,133 per one million population — has been ten times higher than Australia’s. As in Australia, emergency government funding during the COVID-19 pandemic and the departure of large numbers of temporary workers saw unemployment numbers fall, in France to 7.5 percent at end of 2021, the lowest figure since 2008. But much of this employment is part-time or transient, and youth unemployment remains at 15 percent. Macron has also benefited from his leadership during the war on Ukraine. As the current president of the EU he has been particularly active in negotiations and in achieving unprecedented European unity on sanctions imposed on Russia.

For all these reasons Macron is likely to be preferred to his main challengers, perceived as either too divisive and risky (Le Pen and Zemmour) or as lacking experience and policy substance (Pécresse). The war on Ukraine has strengthened his appeal at a time when 90 percent of French people polled claim to be “anxious” or “very anxious” about the war. The latest opinion polls revealed a sharp jump in voters intending to vote for him in the first round, from 26.5 percent to 30.5 percent just one week after the invasion. At present, his major challengers, Le Pen, Zemmour and Pécresse, would each receive 11.5 percent to 14.5 percent in the first round. In a second round run-off Macron would defeat all three comfortably: Le Pen by 59:41, Zemmour 65:35 and Pécresse 64:36. While the left socialist Mélenchon is currently also running at 14 percent, his anti-NATO rhetoric and perceived dogmatism are likely to be an increasing liability as the polls approach. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the splitting of the right-of-centre vote might allow Mélenchon to advance to the second round, but he too would then be well beaten by Macron.

Why does all this matter for Australia? Most important, from a strategic point of view, is whether there is to be continuity in France’s commitment to involvement alongside Australia in the fraught geo-politics of the Indo-Pacific, despite Australia’s decision in September 2021 to abandon the AU$90 billion submarine contract with the French shipbuilder Naval Group. Relations between the EU on the one hand and AUKUS, QUAD, and the Five Eyes groupings on the other will become more important during the new presidency. Embedded in those strategic questions is the status of New Caledonia, where the third of three referenda on independence, on 12 December 2021, resulted in another vote to stay with France.

Of international significance, too, is what the presidential election will signal about France’s leadership in Europe, all the more important with the departure of Angela Merkel in September 2021 after 16 years as chancellor of Germany. Macron’s achievements in advancing a united stand of the 27 EU countries towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been very considerable, but the stakes are high for him – as for the rest of the world – in seeking to secure an end to the conflict without risking a third world war and while convincing his electorate that the price to be paid is rapid inflation at home and the likelihood of protracted horror to the east.

Peter McPhee AM is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Melbourne and was the University’s first Provost in 2007-09. He has published widely on the history of modern France, most recently Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life (2012), and Liberty or Death: the French Revolution (2016). He is currently the Chair of the History Council of Victoria, the state’s peak body for history.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.