France is poised for a rematch of the 2017 presidential election run-off with centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen once again advancing to the final after first-round voting on Sunday. But the 2022 race has so far been anything but a replay of the contest Macron won five years ago. And the final result when all votes are counted on April 24 is all the more uncertain for it.
Macron topped the first-round contest, winning 27.6 percent of the vote, according to Ipsos/Sopra Steria estimates late Sunday evening, ahead of Le Pen’s 23 percent score. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon rode a late surge – and an appeal for leftists to vote tactically – to 22.2 percent, narrowly falling short of a place in the final.
The rest of the field finished way behind, a single-digit peloton led by hardline pundit-turned-politician Éric Zemmour on 7.2 percent. The mainstream parties that had traded tenancies at the Élysée Palace for decades until Macron came to power each fell to disastrous defeat; Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse scored 4.8 percent for fourth place, while Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo’s 1.7 percent put her in a humiliating 10th.
Voter turnout was remarkably low. Some 26 percent of registered voters elected to stay home for the first-round, four points up on 2017 and uncomfortably close to the 2002 record of 28.4 percent.
On the surface, the results look like a rubberstamp of poll results stretching back years portending of a rematch of the 2017 final. Then as now, Macron topped Le Pen. Indeed, both on Sunday topped their scores from five years ago, with Macron more than three points up and Le Pen gaining nearly two. But this race has been all but a procession to a predictable result. Macron’s resounding first-round win is deceiving; the suspense remains for the second round in two weeks’ time.
Less to celebrate for vote-topping Macron
Five years ago, Macron famously fêted his first-round result deep into the night with campaigners and luminaries at La Rotonde, an upscale brasserie on Paris’s Left Bank. Those festivities drew flak as a little crass, a little graceless, with a run-off yet to win against the far right. But back in 2017, nearly anyone would concede that the next ballot was a foregone conclusion; facing the far-right in a presidential election then still meant virtually automatically winning by a landslide, as it had once before in 2002. A reliable French electoral trope known as the Front Républicain (Republican front) – the propensity for disparate political forces to band together at the ballot box to ward off the threat of any far-right challenger – was sure to kick in.
And indeed Macron, the centrist political neophyte, never before elected to any office, would go on to win 66.1 percent to Le Pen’s 33.9 percent in 2017 to become France’s youngest president.
But five years on, the incumbent would be wise to temper the festivities. After five years of Macron rule that left mainstream conservatives in tatters and leftists exasperated, observers say the Republican front isn’t certain to sweep to the rescue this time and carry Macron to a second term. Indeed, on Friday, the last day polls could be released before the weekend vote, Le Pen finally closed the gap on Macron for just this prospective final; the Elabe firm found Macron polling at 51 to Le Pen’s 49. On Sunday night, another poll by the Ifop firm just after polling stations closed showed the same 51-49 gap, while Ipsos had Macron at 54, with a three-point margin of error. Each puts the far right, for the first time, a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace.
How did it come to this?
The 2022 race has been a study in contrasts compared to the 2017 race that first pit Macron against Le Pen.
Macron won that race with all the energy of a bandit. Economy Minister under then Socialist president François Hollande, Macron broke away from the mainstream leftist leader to found his own centrist party, secured financing on his charisma, poached talent literally left, right and centre, and beating the odds on a wave of “throw-the-bums-out” frustration with the old mainstream. His journey to the presidency was a meteoric rise full of swagger and calculated risk.
But as the incumbent this year, Macron’s first-round campaign was vanishingly short on risk – spartan, short and off-key. He officially joined the race at the very last moment, and then only in minimalist fashion via a letter to the French. He claimed – more or less sincerely – that he was too preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic and waging diplomacy on Ukraine to throw himself into a domestic campaign wholeheartedly. Historically an excellent debater, Macron nonetheless refused to debate any of his 11 first-round adversaries face-to-face before the vote; the erstwhile maverick, who had campaigned in 2017 on doing politics differently, simply cited predecessor incumbents who shirked debates, too, during the re-election bids of yesteryear.
Macron did hold a four-hour mid-March press conference to present his re-election platform. But with scant after-sales service from the sitting president, rivals left and right were free to zero in on Macron proposals they were free to paint as brutish: raising the retirement age to 65 and conditioning welfare payments on hours of work.
The campaign-trail standoffishness didn’t do Macron a disservice, at first. Amid war in Europe, Macron rode a rally-round-the-flag effect to new heights in the polls, while his adversaries fumbled for traction. But modern news cycles being what they are, that wartime-leader effect faded as French voters lost interest in the conflict. More to the point, the war in Ukraine is impinging on French pocketbooks back home, at the pumps and at the supermarket, focusing minds on voters’ primary concern: purchasing power.
On the far right, meanwhile, Le Pen has beaten the trail at small-town markets and meeting halls, her campaign focused on just those issues closer to voters’ immediate concerns. She wore her easy-to-grasp pitches for getting money into voters’ pockets on her sleeve – slashing taxis on fuel and excusing anyone under 30 of income tax, sharpening her appeal to a working-class electorate frustrated with the left. And those interested in making sure she was still just as hardline on immigrants and Muslims could consult the brochure.
Upstaged on the latter issues by a noisier newcomer, the pundit-turned-politician Zemmour, widely deemed to have softened Le Pen’s image by comparison, her stock rose once again with hardline voters as it became clear she was better placed to lead them to the run-off for a second time.
As Le Pen closed in, Macron used his one and only campaign rally to try to make amends with leftist voters, the ones who felt betrayed after he ran as a centrist in 2017 but largely governed to the right of centre since. The same voters he’ll need to pad a Republican front on April 24.
Where is this race going?
The suspense heading into the next two weeks stems from a political situation of Macron’s making. Building his own centrist empire, Macron studiously stole away top talent from rival mainstream parties on the left and right. Those losses have left those parties reeling. They have also left French voters short of credible mainstream options beyond Macron.
Like the Socialist Party five years ago, the conservative Les Républicains paid the price on Sunday night. In 2017, the conservative candidate, François Fillon, managed to score 20 percent of the vote even after being saddled all campaign long with a scandal that would later earn him a corruption conviction. In the years that followed,Les Républicains bled talent, with Macron poaching away key players (two prime ministers, a finance minister, an interior minister…). Flash forward to 2022 and Pécresse is poised to see millions in campaign financing subsidies disappear, accorded as they are to candidates who top 5 percent of the vote.
Notably, Pécresse and the Socialist Hidalgo, conceding defeat minutes after polling places closed at 8pm, were the first on Sunday night to declare they would vote for Macron in the run-off to keep Le Pen from power. Pécresse warned of “disastrous consequences” should France fall into far-right hands; Hidalgo called for a Macron vote “so that France does not fall into hatred”.
They were the first shots over the bow for the Republican front, sure, but from two deeply wounded parties on the verge of a reckoning. Greens candidate Yannick Jadot and Communist candidate Fabien Roussel added their featherweight to the front, too, with appeals for their low single-digit support to back Macron over Le Pen in the second round.
‘There must be no single vote for Le Pen,’ says France’s far-left Melenchon
Meanwhile, in what may be his swan song on the French presidential stage, Jean-Luc Mélenchon appealed only for the 22.2 percent support he won on Sunday night – nearly three points up on his 2017 score – not to cast a single vote for Marine Le Pen. “I know your anger,” Mélenchon told supporters in his concession speech. “Do not let yourselves get carried away with it to the point of committing definitively irreparable errors,” he pleaded. But with his La France Insoumise (“France unbowed”) voters widely seen as most likely to sit out the run-off, the cantankerous 70-year-old far-leftists stopped well short of endorsing Macron and will have done very little to quell any frayed nerves in Macron’s camp.
Good cop, bad cop
On the other side of the ledger, Zemmour was crystal clear in his endorsement of his far-right rival. “There is, facing Marine Le Pen, a man who has let in 2 million immigrants,” Zemmour told supporters, in a concession speech that doubled as a pledge he would press on, politically. “I will not doubt who my adversary is. That is why I am calling on my electors to vote for Marine Le Pen.”
Support from Zemmour’s voters is critical for Le Pen’s chances for winning the French presidency, a precious reserve of fresh votes and the fruit of the far-right pair’s ostensibly unintentional good-cop-bad-cop act in this race.
But the sulfurous Zemmour may well know his endorsement is a double-edged sword. Throughout this race, as he poached talent away from Le Pen and Pécresse, Zemmour’s play was to lead a rejigged French right to a new dawn. Having topped Pécresse in this first-round, he made good on one part of that mission. But Le Pen winning the presidency would hardly serve his needs. Down the stretch in this race, Zemmour teased that Le Pen, whose softened image had won her new fans, would see her party demonised anew the minute she advanced to the final run-off.
Zemmour’s unabashed support may well help that along and, played right, could prove Macron’s saving grace. Speaking to jubilant supporters on Sunday night, Le Pen sought to capitalise on frustrations with his administration, appealing for votes from “the left, the right and elsewhere”, indeed “anyone who did not vote for” Macron, as she promised “social justice and protection”.
But the incumbent would certainly do well to highlight Zemmour’s pointed endorsement in a bid to help along the hobbling Republican front. Far from planning a party, Macron has his work cut out and just two weeks to stave off a historic humiliation.
“Make no mistake: nothing is decided,” Macron told cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters on Sunday night. “The debate that we are going to have over the next fortnight will be decisive for our country and Europe,” he said. “When the far-right in all its forms is so high in our country, you can’t say that things are going well.”