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#Newsletter Exclusive / Mălina Mîndruțescu

The French presidency race is set to be a fiery one

On Sunday, April 10th, the first round of the French presidential elections took place.

With the left failing to coalesce around a single convincing candidate, Macron and Le Pen will go head to head in the second round of voting. Macron received 27.8%, and Marine Le Pen is behind with 23.1%.

It is the third time in twenty years the far-right has reached the final round, and it is now the second presidential election in a row with Marine Le Pen. The run-off is a repeat of 2017, and Macron’s margin over Le Pen is slightly larger this year than it was in 2017, reports the Brussels Times.

In what looked to be a safe electoral contest for the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, the war in Ukraine, spearheaded by Russian president Vladimir Putin, changed the trajectory of the political discourse in France.

In an unusual contest, in which no fewer than 12 candidates ran for president, across the entire political and ideological spectrum, the contest more or less seemed set to be between Macron and his long-time “nemesis”, far-right politician, Marine Le Pen, in her third and last effort to be crowned president of France.

But, as months passed, it seemed like the tide had been turning in terms of the political conversation taking place in France.

With presidential candidates like Le Pen, a hard liner who is against immigration, distrustful of European and Western institutions and has shown her sympathies towards the Kremlin leader in the past, or the controversial political pundit, Éric Zemmour, a candidate with an incendiary rhetoric, who has expressed nostalgia for France’s colonial past, has demonised Islam and Muslims, and has longed for France to have a Putin of his own, the French political scene has seen a shift to the right.

This has also been the case with Macron, who has expressed his desire to raise the retiring age from 62 to 65, has mentioned that working requirements are necessary in order for people to be eligible for healthcare benefits and has talked about lowering the inheritance tax – all political efforts that have been spearheaded by more right-wing politicians.

But, as it happens, France’s shift to the right has inundated and impacted Macron’s agenda to such a degree, that experts say that the political centre is slowly, but surely disappearing.

With candidates on the extreme fringes and few candidates remaining on the centre, it is understandable that the French electorate might seem a bit confused as to the array of choices.

“If you take Macron: the left thinks he is on the right; the right thinks he is on the left; Mélenchon says he is not a man of the people; others treat him as a populist. The institutional position of the President means he will take blows everywhere”, says Émeric Bréhier, a former MP and director of the political observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, for The Local, a French news website for an English-speaking audience.

This level of confusion is also reflected not only in a profound atmosphere of disdain towards the political class, and Macron in particular, from his position as an incumbent who disappointed his left-leaning voters by moving to the right, but also by an inability to read the outcome that may result in the second round.

macron le pen

Photo source: The Brussels Times

 

“There has been a breakdown of the traditional left-right divide in France, but the two traditional parties [le Parti socialiste and Les Républicains] are in a lamentable state. There are masses of voters supporting Macron and an opposition centred around Marine Le Pen but the rest is a complete mess, which makes it very difficult to read,” continues Bréhier, the French political expert, in a report for The Local.

Even though Macron is still projected to win the second round of the presidential election, which will take place on April 24th, it would be nowhere near the 30% margin, with which he beat Le Pen in 2017. Back then, Macron was an energetic outsider, who was bringing a fresh perspective onto the lamentable socialist political scene in France.

Now, he is not only part of that political scene, but he is also changing his convictions, according to how the wind blows, as critics of Macron have noted.

François Hollande, Mr. Macron’s Socialist Party predecessor, in whose government Macron was Minister of the Economy, described his one-time protégé as a failed head of state “jumping from one belief to another like a frog on water lilies”. During his book tour, Hollande continued to scathe Macron’s performance in office.

“This term has been marked by a lack of coherence and by the absence of a doctrine, which has led the president to multiply U-turns on essential issues, such as the role of the state, ecology and security,” he said in the interview.

In the meantime, as Macron has been busy playing president (and less so candidate), as he had emerged as the West’s chief negotiator with Russia during the Ukraine war (an approach which has helped him in the polls, but the weeks leading up to the first round of elections, these started going down), Le Pen was out in the country, campaigning and doing rallies in small towns and villages.

With a grassroots campaign meticulously organised and managed (Le Pen announced her campaign more than seven months ago, whereas Macron only announced he was running in March and held his first rally a week before the first presidential round), the far-right leader emerged stronger than ever.

le pen

Photo source: Shutterstock

 

“She has softened her image in a successful process of “undemonizing” and has focused relentlessly on ordinary voters’ economic hardship. That message has resonated even more broadly as energy prices have spiked because of the war in Ukraine”, says a New York Times newsletter.

And, while the Ukraine war had remained constantly on people’s minds – opinion polls show that the conflict in eastern Europe would hugely impact voters’ intentions at the polls, Le Pen managed to frame it in a way that would benefit her.

Polishing her rhetoric and focusing on what would hit closest to home – economic hardship, an increasingly unaffordable cost of living and purchasing power – Le Pen promised that she will protect those that would be most affected by the economic repercussion of the war in Ukraine.

“I am very worried, it will be a very close runoff. Many on the left will abstain rather than vote Macron,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at Sciences Po university, for The New York Times.

For other True Story Project analyses on the French election, please click here and here.

 

Photo source: The New York Times

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