Françoise Boucek

Emmanuel Macron finally announced he’s seeking a second term as president of France, a month before the first round of France’s presidential election and a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So that’s now 12 candidates (including four women) who have qualified for the race after getting the minimum threshold of 500 parrainages (sponsorships of elected officials).

Macron remains not just the clear favourite to win but his predicted margin of victory against his closest competitors on the extreme-right - Marine Le Pen leader of Rassemblement National (RN) and Eric Zemmour leader of a nationalist movement (Reconquête!) has jumped significantly since the start of the war in Ukraine. 

One of the latest polls by Ipsos shows Macron getting 30.5 per cent of the popular vote in the first round on April 10, twice as much as his nearest rival Marine Le Pen with 14.5 per cent. The last time there was a gap like this was in the 1965 election won by Charles de Gaulle. 

So, the only real interest now is who will finish second to compete against the centrist Macron in the runoff on April 24. Until recently, polls suggested that would be someone from the right since the fragmented left failed to rally behind a single candidate. However, voting intentions for radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have been creeping up lately while those of Valérie Pécresse of the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) have declined. 


The war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has pushed domestic economic and social priorities like purchasing power and health to one side and forced candidates to address issues like military power, energy independence and the EU’s defence capacity. Macron’s critics fear that the war provides the president with a shield to avoid debate and examination of his record. Indeed, he has already ruled out participating in a televised debate with the other candidates before the first round.

In a letter to the nation launching his re-election, Macron argued that he is best placed to buttress the nation in a fast evolving international situation against those who hark back to the past. His popularity has certainly been boosted by the war despite so far ineffective efforts to mediate between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Still, France now holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency which gives Macron a platform to project his statesmanship in geopolitics at this critical time.

In contrast, on the extreme right, former Putin sympathisers - Le Pen and Zemmour – have had to back-pedal. The waves of refugees fleeing Ukraine over the past few days have tested their traditional anti-immigrant postures and in the case of Zemmour hollowed out his flagship message. Meanwhile, on the left, Putin apologist Mélenchon has surprisingly gained popularity despite his anti-NATO utterances, opposition to Russian sanctions and past critique of Ukraine as not ‘a real country’.


The centre right: Valérie Pécresse

The campaign of centre-right Republican candidate Valérie Pécresse is in the doldrums. Recent polls put her either in fifth place or neck-and-neck in fourth place with left candidate Mélenchon. 

Pécresse defected from Les Républicains (LR) in 2019 in protest at the party’s right-wing turn under Laurent Wauquiez. But after re-joining the party last year, she was chosen as the Republicans’ presidential candidate in a closed primary last December. She did well in debates against her competitors including Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and beat first-round winner Eric Ciotti by 61 per cent of votes in the primary runoff against 39 per cent for the MP from southern Alpes-Maritimes. 

Pécresse is an experienced politician, a protégée of former president Jacques Chirac and minister for higher education and budget under Nicolas Sarkozy.

Since 2015, she has been President of Île-de-France Region which includes Paris. Like Macron, she is an established member of the ‘political elite’ - an énarque (graduate of Ecole Nationale d’Administration), pro-European, uppermiddle class (born in chic Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris) and a target of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in 2019.

So Pécresse faces a tricky task. She must pull moderate voters away from Macron while garnering traditional conservative and working-class voters tempted by Le Pen or Zemmour. 

To hold the Republicans’ traditional base of business and employers, Pécresse has described herself as “two-thirds Merkel, one-third Thatcher”. She has focused on issues of internal security, reducing the size of the state, shrinking the national debt and toughening immigration laws. Since the war in Ukraine, she has struggled to shift the focus towards increasing the defence budget. 

To draw centrists from Macron, Pécresse now needs to better define her image, soften her policy stance and broaden her appeal to the lower middle class. However, to beat Le Pen in any runoff, she needs the support of employees and blue-collar workers who abandoned the Republicans for Le Pen years ago. That’s why Pécresse started talking about purchasing power, inheritance rights, family allowances, the rights of handicapped children and rural communities. But under pressure from business and employers, she has had to reconsider her ambitious promise of 10% wage increases for 12 million low-income earners. 

So far, Pécresse hasn’t managed to spin out a compelling narrative beyond her slogan of “authority, freedom, dignity.” Her performance at a recent rally was so underwhelming that Republican bigwigs including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former Minister of Defence and European Affairs Michèle AlliotMarie have shied away from endorsing her publicly. Worse, former Republican Prime Minister (under Chirac) Jean-Pierre Raffarin has called for Republicans to rally behind Macron in order to block far-right candidates.


The far-right: Le Pen v. Zemmour

A few months ago, polls predicted a re-run of 2017 between Macron and Le Pen. Then, Zemmour popped up to make life interesting by challenging Le Pen on her own ideological grounds.


Marine Le Pen

Running for president for the third time, Le Pen was soundly defeated in 2017 by Macron who swept to power with two-thirds of the vote thanks to Socialist and centre right voters. The latter had little choice after the campaign of François Fillon (LR) was derailed by an embezzlement scandal and ‘fake jobs’ for his Welsh wife for which he got a five-year prison sentence (with three suspended).

Le Pen has been busy for the last 10 years rebranding the Front National party she inherited from her father Jean-Marie in 2011. This ‘de-demonisation’ has changed public perceptions of Le Pen. According to a recent survey only 40% see her as the representative of a ‘nationalist and xenophobic extreme right’ compared to 64% for Zemmour. While their voters are concerned about the same issues, they are sociologically different.

But voting for Le Pen still represents a protest vote. RN policies are still antiimmigration (with a promise of an immigration referendum if she gets elected); anti-Muslim (not against Islam as a religion but ‘Islamism as an ideology’); anti-Europe (but without ‘Frexit’ and keeping the euro) and pronational sovereignty (taking back control as with Brexit); anti-big state (opposed to the ‘vaccine passport’) and anti-globalisation (and job losses in the former industrial north, a stronghold of RN support). 

Despite the escalation of violence in Ukraine, Le Pen still pushes for a UN diplomatic solution and stresses the effect of sanctions on the purchasing power of French citizens.

Le Pen’s big problem is that 34% of people don’t see the RN as a governmentin-waiting. Big promises like cutting the retirement age back to 60 are not costed and there are desertions in Le Pen’s ranks including her party’s head of delegation in the European Parliament and LR Senator Stéphane Ravier. And now, her niece, Marion Maréchal, has also joined Zemmour’s campaign.


Eric Zemmour

Zemmour is the son of Jewish Algerian immigrants and a former columnist for the conservative newspaper The Figaro. He has written several books about the decline of French identity, notably The French Suicide (2014) and La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France has not said its last word), the launch-pad for his presidential campaign. 

His anti-immigrant, anti-muslim and racist comments have landed him in court on several occasions, most recently in January. This firebrand subscribes to the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory: the replacement of white, Christian populations in Europe with Muslim migration from Africa. To preserve French culture and identity, he would eliminate immigration entirely. If he became president, illegal immigrants would be pushed back and stronger constraints imposed on asylum seekers and foreigners wishing to join families in France. 

His campaign tactics are also questionable. On March 4, he was found guilty by the Paris Tribunal of copyright infringement. In his campaign launch last November, he had used without permission a lot of video material from various sources. Despite the large crowds attending his meetings, he is perceived as a danger to democracy by 62% of respondents to the Kantar survey. 


A fragmented and divided left with limited prospect

Meanwhile, the French left is in complete disarray. Polls suggest no candidate will qualify for the runoff. The only significant contender is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Leader of La France Insoumise, a radical left party. This is the third time that this 70-year old firebrand is competing for the presidency. He may get 10-12% of the vote, about half of what he got in 2017.

Originally eight presidential candidates spanning the left’s extreme, radical, and moderate wings had declared, excluding three green party candidates. However, only five of them managed to reach the 500 sponsorships. This includes Yannick Jadot who had won the primary for Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV). 

Jadot is the only minority candidate with any hope of getting his campaign expenses reimbursed by taxpayers, assuming he gets the required 5% of firstround votes, an unlikely prospect for Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, with her meagre 3% of voting intentions.

A ‘popular primary’ to select a single candidate representing the left proved chaotic and counter-productive. Three of the candidates evaluated on 27-30 January by about 460,000 signed-up citizens had refused to take part and to recognise the poll’s legitimacy (including Mélenchon, Hidalgo and Jadot). 

In the event, the winner, former Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, had to pull out of the presidential race after failing to garner the required number of sponsorships. And now, the primary organisers are calling for people to vote for Mélenchon even though Jadot had come second in that poll. 


An earlier version of this article was published on the EUROPP blog on Feb 2nd.


Author biography

Françoise Boucek is a Visiting Research Fellow and Associate of the Centre for European Research at Queen Mary University of London where she was a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations from 2003-18. She is co-Convenor of the Political Studies Association Specialist Group ‘French Politics and Policy’.