The first stage of the 2022 French presidential elections has predictably resulted in Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron making it through to the second round. Radical left leader Jean Luc Mélanchon’s final bid to make it through failed by the slightest of margins. He obtained 22 percent of the vote, his party’s best score yet, but was pipped at the post by Len Pen who obtained 23.1 percent.
Although Macron increased his share of the vote in the first round compared to 2017 (rising from 24.1 percent to 28 percent), this in no way guarantees his victory in the second round, which takes place on 24 April.
The anti-far-right front
Since Jean-Marine Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father) succeeded for the first time in taking the extreme right through to the final round of the elections against Republican Jacques Chirac in 2002, all opposition parties who lose the first round have encouraged their voters to support any candidate who opposes the far right, should they make it through to the second.
This election is no exception and after their respective defeats on Sunday evening, leader after leader pleaded with the French not to allow Marine Le Pen to take power. Only right-wing extremist and conspiracy theorist Eric Zemmour pledged his support for her (as reported by France24 on 10 April).
Mélanchon repeated several times to his supporters “not a single vote for Marine Le Pen!”, the socialist leader and sitting mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo pledged her allegiance to Macron and said in her conceding speech “so that France does not fall into hatred of all against all, I solemnly call on you to vote on April 24th against the far-right of Marine Le Pen”.
Valérie Pecresse of the right-wing Républicains warned of the “disastrous consequences” of a Le Pen victory. The Greens and the Socialists also stated their solid support for Macron.
But a study of how the French voted on 10 April reveals that these pleas risk falling on deaf ears in some crucial sectors. What is clear is that the traditional parties on the left and right, the Socialists, in power under Francois Holland before Macron took over in 2017, and the conservative Républicains previously headed up by President Sarkozy, have been totally obliterated achieving only 1.7 percent and 4.8 percent respectively.
Populism on the rise, right and left
What’s interesting to see is that the two leaders who performed best after Macron share certain characteristics. They are both nationalist, populist and protectionist.
Marine Le Pen in her victory speech on the evening of 10 April, therefore invited Mélanchon voters to support her on the 24 April and is attempting to present the second round of the elections as an anti-Macron referendum.
Surveys show that this vital reserve of Mélanchon supporters is split three ways: 33 percent say they will vote Macron, 16 percent say they will vote for Le Pen, and the rest will abstain.
That last two thirds could cause big problems for Macron.
Crisis management and changing priorities
Since the last presidential elections in 2017, the political landscape has drastically changed. A significant part of the population who could previously have been relied on to maintain the electoral pact against Le Pen, have an extremely negative perception of the sitting president.
They have lived through and maybe participated in the anti-government gilets jaunes movement and so see Macron as the personification of everything they were protesting against.
The restrictions caused by covid, the lockdowns, the vaccine programme and the imposition of a pass sanitaire (health pass) turned several people against the president who had to manage these crises. To them, Macron is ‘enemy number one’ and several would happily lend their vote to Le Pen to ensure a change of president.
Macron is trying to highlight his perceived successes – the management of the economy during covid, the significant drop in unemployment figures since he took power, the increase in the minimum wage as well as his proposal to fix the minimum retirement pension at €1,000/month – but it’s harder to defend a record than to promise change, and here he is at a considerable disadvantage.
Unlike Mélanchon and Le Pen, Macron is unapologetically pro-EU and an internationalist who would never question France’s membership of Nato. He wants France to cooperate with other countries and foreign leaders to anchor the country’s place on the world stage. His economic strategy has neoliberal Anglo-Saxon elements to it – with more flexible employment structures, a longer working life, and reducing the negotiating power of unions.
Policies which are often regarded with suspicion by many traditional voters and which pose a real problem for those on the left to support.
Mélanchon’s voters hold the key to the future of France
An angry electorate is easy prey for populist politicians. The cost-of-living crisis, the rise in fuel prices and government reforms to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 have infuriated communities who are struggling to make ends meet, especially those in former mining and steel producing areas, small farmers and those on low wages. It is telling that on 10 April Macron fared the worst in areas with the highest poverty levels. Geopolitics and internationalism are not high on their list of concerns.
However, although Mélanchon, like Le Pen, is considered a nationalist and a Eurosceptic, though not necessarily to the point of leaving the EU, there are inevitably significant differences in their respective outlooks.
He was highly proactive in areas concerning ecology and the green agenda wanting to move away from nuclear energy. These policies attracted the highest youth vote of any party.
He is also very supportive of the civil service, sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and is highly vocal against what he considers as Le Pen’s xenophobic instincts.
In total contrast to Mélanchon, Le Pen would end wind and solar energy initiatives in favour of investing in nuclear energy. She is offering social policies such as no income tax for the under 30s, €1,000/month student grants, 5.5 percent VAT on energy and 0 percent VAT for essential products.
She promises to be tough on immigration and crime and wants to promote her notion of French Identity via constitutional changes described by some as a coup d’état as it would effectively be a legal discrimination between French nationals and foreigners concerning every aspect of life from employment, to housing, to healthcare.
This may be very appealing to many who are struggling financially, but less so to the more educated and/or better off who are passionate about the environment and less hostile to outsiders.
A rock and a hard place
The radicalism of no-nonsense populist parties have clearly been attractive to an electorate exhausted by the pandemic which made them distrustful of authority, who feel economically left behind and failed by the establishment.
Le Pen is hoping her financial packages will be sufficient to make enough of them turn a blind eye to her openly xenophobic policies and to vote for her, or rather to vote against Macron.
Her new campaign slogan is telling. ‘Pour tous les Français’ (for all the French).
At first glance, this could be perceived as an invitation to Mélanchon’s supporters to join her camp so that she represents all factions of the French electorate, left and right. But the presence of the word ‘French’ in the slogan serves to satisfy her base who will recognise the underlying message – France for the French, and only the French.
The people feel that they are being asked to choose between a neoliberal and a racist. The results of the 10 April first round of this election have made disinclined kingmakers of those who are neither.