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French Presidential Election - 10 April 2022

A year ahead of presidential elections, poll after poll puts President Emmanuel Macron in a 2022 rematch against far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But French voters said they don't want to relive that 2017 duel a year from now. And history, at least, was on their side: France's presidential elections are often rife with spectacular surprises.

In 2017, Macron's victory was the last in a series of improbable plot twists. As a never-before-elected centrist, Macron, then only 39, mounted an unlikely bid for the presidency as an independent at the head of his own fledgling movement, famously seeing off long-established parties to make it to the presidential run-off. His meteoric rise culminated in beating the populist Le Pen in her second bid for power. He scored 66.1 percent of the vote to her 33.9, becoming the youngest president ever elected in France. Macron's tour de force left traditional parties reeling, a state of disarray from which they have yet to recover.

Four years on, France has weathered storm after storm of disquiet and dissent – deadly terrorist attacks, fiery Yellow Vest protests, a pension reform revolt that shut down large swaths of the country and a once-in-a-century pandemic. And yet "The battlefield remains outrageously dominated by the two 2017 finalists," the Journal du Dimanche said in april 2021, after polling it commissioned from the Ifop firm indicated a likely Macron-Le Pen rematch. Testing 10 different first-round hypotheses all brought the same result, with Macron ultimately topping Le Pen 54 to 46 percent in the run-off. "No other configuration but the Macron-Le Pen duel seems, for the moment, plausible," the weekly concluded.

Le Monde published a similar survey outcome , with the 2017 "finalists comfortably ahead in every scenario envisaged" in a panel of 10,000 voters polled by the Ipsos firm, with the incumbent topping his populist rival 57 to 43 percent in the run-off. "The Macron-Le Pen duel, for the moment, trounces every other alternative," the newspaper said.

A vast majority in France – 70 percent in another Ifop poll – say they don't want a Macron-Le Pen replay next year. But so omnipresent is the polling on that scenario that nearly half (48 percent) of those surveyed by the Elabe polling firm even deemed Le Pen "certain or probable" to win the presidency in 2022, up seven points in a six-month span.

Specialists said the Covid-19 crisis had the effect of "congealing" the political landscape. Aspiring challengers – and there were many – had made little discernible headway in a race seemingly frozen in time. And the French voters they sought to persuade didn't quite have their usual taste for it. The 10,000-voter Ipsos panel showed 63 percent were interested in the election compared to 71 percent in May 2016, a year ahead of the last election.

But those whose job it is to monitor the political landscape suggest this eerie equilibrium is an optical illusion. France's 2022 election is different for its very unusual constraints but also because it could break wide open at any time, depending in large part on how and when the pandemic winds down in France. "That is what is going to be interesting, too; it's that [a race] has never been so open and volatile," political consultant and Sciences Po professor Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet told FRANCE 24 29 April 2021.

"The pandemic is delaying the moment for presidential debate," political historian Christian Delporte told FRANCE 24. "We are in a state of very, very great uncertainty. And the very fact that Macron's election reconstructed a political family clouds things considerably. We can imagine that this election campaign sorts itself out very late and spurs the emergence of someone," said Delporte, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Versailles.

France's presidential election is "very, very distinctive", Delporte explained. "Candidates have never, since the 1980s, had a high score in the first round. So it all hangs on very, very little." Little more than a fifth of the vote can clinch a place in the final. In the first round of 2017's presidential election, for instance, Macron scored 24.01 percent and Le Pen 21.3 percent to advance to the run-off. Close behind, the third- and fourth-place finishers' race was over, with 20.01 percent and 19.58 percent, respectively.

No French incumbent in 40 years has won re-election on his record – the only presidents to win a second term did so running against sitting prime ministers from the opposition that they could readily hang the blame on, which is not the case for Macron. France's track record is clear: surprises are the norm. For generations, the likeliest pairing of candidates a year out from any French presidential election has hardly ever made it to the following May as the final two sparring partners on the ballot. The French twist, up to and including Macron's uncanny 2017 win, has been a cinch.

A year before Macron's election, Socialist incumbent François Hollande had yet to rule out a bid for re-election. Macron's fledgling independent movement En Marche was merely days old. Pollsters were still testing Macron, Hollande's former economy minister, as a candidate for the Socialist Party. But even then, the future president was not expected to make the 2017 run-off; Le Pen and ultra-favourite conservative former prime minister Alain Juppé were well out in front.

What followed was a veritable soap opera of surprises. The unpopular Hollande threw in the towel before the race. Macron went rogue. Juppé lost the conservative primary to fellow former PM François Fillon. Touting himself as a paragon of integrity, Fillon looked like a shoo-in for the Élysée Palace – until he and wife Penelope were disgraced by a fake-jobs scandal. In beating established parties to the run-off and easily beating Le Pen to the presidency, Macron was said to have pulled off "the heist of the century".

Surprises may be what a French presidential contest is made of, but 2022 is a different beast on several fronts. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, those surprises were rooted in mass rallies, grassroots lobbying, shaking hands and kissing babies – all unfeasible for now. Before Macron, the contests were also the domain of relatively robust political parties, the same mainstream forces that now still lie in tatters. Until now, Le Pen's National Rally party (the former National Front) was a political bogeyman that could unite disparate forces to keep it out of power. But even that is changing.

As France lingered near the peak of the third wave of a pandemic that has left more than 100,000 dead – still under curfew and with public gatherings curtailed – old-fashioned campaigning is a distant prospect at best. Half a dozen hopefuls on the left and as many on the right have either declared bids or pointedly expressed interest. Others, like Macron's ever-popular former prime minister Édouard Philippe touting his new book or leftist icon Christiane Taubira, have let speculation swirl freely about their presidential potential. But with pandemic restrictions still in place, is it possible for newcomer candidates to gain traction or even emerge victorious, à la Macron?

One case in point: Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. One of the few Socialist success stories in the party's glum recent past, Hidalgo aimed to broaden her renown beyond the capital with her personal "tour de France" this spring before officially throwing her hat in the race. But she has had to pause that project as infections climbed again. Could yesteryear's outsiders, like Ségolène Royal or Macron himself, have risen to prominence without networking in the flesh?

"Since France has yet to ascribe to a zero-Covid strategy, a campaign that plays out as usual with big rallies isn't conceivable. It will be excessively complicated. Politicians will be tempted to do it, but there's reality," Moreau-Chevrolet told FRANCE 24 29 April 2021. His latest book is a graphic novel about a consultant charged with helping a popular TV star run for president. Moreau-Chevrolet says today's circumstances create unusual opportunities for outside challengers. "We run the risk of having more of a virtual campaign for 2022," he said. That's what makes it possible to imagine just about any hypothesis, any combination. Because with that type of campaign, if it's really digital, we can easily imagine in a few weeks or months things changing radically for one or the other candidate."

"The situation will be new and very fragile, because people will literally be deciding alone, at home, through social networks, with a larger conspiracy-theory component at work. So it's hard to imagine," the political analyst said. "That's why the serious pollsters say the situation is frozen. There are far too many unknowns and we cannot exclude last-minute surprises."

After all, a presidential campaign in France is nothing like its multi-billion-dollar American equivalent. The run-up is shorter and, with a strict €22.5 million spending cap for a finalist, the bar to entry is much lower. "People can say to themselves, hey, there's an opportunity here to win the election on a really virtual campaign, where someone even with a bit of a marginal or divisive profile can manage to unite a quarter of public opinion," Moreau-Chevrolet said. "It's not unreasonable to think that could work. It's not crazy. You need, what, 10 million euros to get off the ground? That's findable because Macron found it. You'd need a clever campaign. And the ideas aren't lacking, especially among the outsiders."

If, and when, French voters deem that France has successfully emerged from the pandemic is also critical. Right-wing entrepreneur and former MEP Philippe de Villiers speculated this month that his one-time ally Macron would be in no position to bid for a second term after Covid-19. "When you have locked away a people for a year, the people remember it," he told BFM TV. He noted that Winston Churchill, who steered Britain through World War II, failed to win re-election. “When your name is associated with misfortune, you leave with the misfortune," De Villiers said.

Moreau-Chevrolet, for his part, believes Macron mismanaged the Covid-19 crisis with a "semi-populist" approach of light lockdowns and an initially cautious vaccine roll-out that has only prolonged the agony. He said this approach may wind up costing the president a key part of his base. "Macron's appeal to elites is a real issue," said Moreau-Chevrolet. "Many elites have friends in London, in Tel Aviv, in New York," he noted. "It will be very, very difficult to calmly evaluate the French government's actions if we see life getting back to normal in New York, London and Tel Aviv while in Paris we are still in a sort of Third World. It will not go over well."

Will an eventual easing of the pandemic finally ring in the roaring ‘20s or find a country licking its wounds? Once the crisis is well and truly past, will the French be willing to let bygones be bygones? It depends, said Delporte. Current public opinion surveys show the French are, of course, preoccupied by the pandemic, but also with social and economic issues, the historian observed. "If we exit the pandemic, say, in the autumn and we have a cascade of company bankruptcies [after emergency subsidies are withdrawn] and unemployment rises, it will be very, very hard for Macron," he said, adding that such a scenario could open a path for ex-PM Philippe to step in as a recourse candidate.

Delporte said the real indicator to watch ahead of an election is a public opinion gauge called the barometer of French morale. "It is never wrong. That can show us the result of the campaign, of the election," Delporte said. "Right now, morale isn't very good. But it can be explained by the pandemic. But we'll need to see, when the pandemic is over, if coming out of it makes people more optimistic or not. If an economic and social crisis takes over from the pandemic, it will necessarily turn [the tide] against Macron."

Macron's master stroke in 2017 – winning office and poaching talent from the left, the right and civil society to govern – proved one didn't need a long-entrenched party machine to win the presidency. But it also left existing parties fragmented, soul-searching shells of themselves. Since 2017 Macron has tacked to the right, leaving political space to his left unclaimed. But backbiting leftist forces in France remain unreconciled and disjointed, threatening to split that vote between far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the Socialist Party (PS) and the green EELV party, contending with its own internal divisions.

Efforts are under way to unite the left – a recurring challenge in French elections akin to herding cats. But former Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, who left the party after scoring a humbling 6 percent in the first round in 2017, got straight to the point at the left's stage-managed would-be peace talks at a Paris Holiday Inn this month. "If La France Insoumise isn't in it, this thing isn't going to work. We've done joint PS-EELV nominations before and that isn't a unified nominee," Le Monde quoted Hamon as saying.

Meanwhile, the conservative Les Républicains – from whom Macron plundered both of his successive prime ministers and which saw two of its luminaries, Fillon and Sarkozy, successively convicted on corruption charges – finds itself with a glut of potential nominees, but no agreed method for choosing one. Some want a party primary, despite divisive past experience. Former cabinet minister Xavier Bertrand is against a primary, counting instead on polling highest and winning re-election as president of the northern Hauts-de-France in upcoming June regional elections. Having gambled on declaring his Élysée bid early, Bertrand stands a distant third in polls after Macron and Le Pen but still ahead of his conservative rivals.

And the far-right National Rally isn't polling as low as the political bogeyman it once was. A decade after taking the reins from her rabble-rousing father, Marine Le Pen has arguably managed to "de-demonise" the party in public opinion to a significant degree while dropping marginalising ideas like leaving the European Union or the euro currency.

"Never, a year ahead of the vote, has a National Front (now the National Rally) party candidate ever obtained this kind of score," Ifop pollster Frédéric Dabi told the Journal du Dimanche, referring to the April poll that put Le Pen at 46 percent in a 2022 run-off. Her party even ranks ahead of any other in the 25-to-34 age range – "these young people who aren't managing to get a foot in the door, who will pay the devastating consequences of the economic crisis", as Dabi told Le Monde.

The daily Libération spurred controversy with a front-page report on the left-wing voters who would rather abstain next May than choose between Macron and Le Pen, suggesting holes were appearing in the united front that long saw French voters of all stripes turn out to keep the far right from office.

France's hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon was accused of reckless speech and fuelling conspiracy theories on 07 June 2021 after he predicted there would be a "serious incident or murder" designed to manipulate voters ahead of next year's presidential election. Mélenchon pointed to a pattern of violent incidents dominating headlines in the run-up to recent presidential contests. "You'll see, in the last weeks of the presidential campaign, we'll have a serious incident or a murder," the fiery head of the France Unbowed party warned, citing earlier examples.

Mélenchon, who took 19% of the ballot in the 2017 presidential race, also drew criticism for pushing the theory that President Emmanuel Macron was an invention of shadowy and powerful interests who control the country and that next year's election had been "written in advance". Referring to Macron's surprise victory four years ago, he said: "In every country of the world, they've invented someone like him, who comes from nowhere and who's pushed by the oligarchy."

A grassroots movement sprang up on the French left that is looking to avoid another showdown between French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, seen by many as the inevitable rematch in France’s 2022 presidential election. By uniting the left and the Greens behind a single candidate, the nascent movement hopes to offer a viable alternative. But not everyone is convinced. Among the founders of the Rencontre des Justices (roughly, Meeting for Justice) collective behind the primary are Mathilde Imer, who helped establish the Citizens' Climate Convention on environmental action, and Samuel Grzybowski of the association Coexister, which supports interfaith dialogue. The group received the support of 178 left-wing and green MPs on July 30. They also have the backing of a number of well-known figures including former presidential candidate Noël Mamère of the Green party, noted French climatologist Jean Jouzel and actress Juliette Binoche. The organisers believe that the same citizens who have mobilised for such causes in recent years might be able to form what they call a "justice league" in the face of the "right-wing" and "neoliberal" blocs represented by Le Pen and Macron, respectively. But despite resolute optimism, reality can be cruel.

France's Greens on 28 September 2021 chose Yannick Jadot, a 54-year-old member of the European Parliament, as their candidate to challenge President Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election. Joining an increasingly crowded field of hopefuls, Jadot will vie with the Socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and far-left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon of the France Unbowed party for votes on the left of French politics. Despite stunning successes in 2020 local elections -- which saw Greens claim control of key city halls including Bordeaux and Lyon -- the Europe Ecology The Greens (EELV) party has yet to make a major impact at a national level.

French commentator Eric Zemmour, an outspoken opponent of immigration despite his immigrant background, gained political notoriety from anti-Muslim hatred and anti-migrant incitement. Before even officially announcing his candidacy in the 2022 French presidential elections, one November 2021 poll placed Zemmour at 16%. This would translate into a second-round run off between him and current president Emmanuel Macron, knocking out far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. No poll, however, has shown him coming even close to winning the presidency. Zemmour sits firmly to the right of his rival Le Pen. He has criminal convictions for inciting racial hatred and is an open proponent of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. This suggests white people are being ethnically cleansed by Muslim migrants and Jewish puppet-masters. The 63-year-old is a native of the Parisian suburbs and the descendent of Berber Jews who moved from Algeria to France during the French-Algerian war in the 1950s.

Uunlike Le Pen, whose notoriously poor performance in a 2017 debate against Emmanuel Macron was nothing short of an embarrassment to her and her party, Zemmour is a seasoned television professional endowed with both the appearance of intellect and the gift of gab. He has said that unaccompanied migrant children from Africa and the Middle East are all killers, rapists and thieves, and that “jihadists were considered to be good Muslims by all Muslims”. He also promotes the racist conspiracy theory that Europeans are gradually being replaced by immigrants.

Zemmour, who describes himself as a Gaullist and a Bonapartist, argues in his 2014 book “The French Suicide: The 40 Years that Defeated France,” that neoliberalism has put France into decline; that high divorce rates have led to sexual desperation and a crisis of virility among white men; and that, since the fall of Napoleon, “France is no longer a predator but prey”. Women, he wrote, are the victims of consumerism and, at their cores, long to be dominated by men.

Zemour had no real political experience, nor did he have the support of a party behind him, nor even a cadre of well-funded backers, as did Macron when building his fledging party. And while he’s full of criticism for the path France has taken since the 1960s, he has yet to delineate a path toward fixing what he believes to be the nation’s problems. Zemmour is candid about his admiration for Donald Trump's US campaign in 2016. "He succeeded in bringing together the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. That's what I've been dreaming about... for 20 years," Zemmour told the LCI channel. Zemmour has suggested similarities between the ex-US president's chief concerns and his own: immigration, de-industrialisation, as well as opposition to "the politically correct". "That means the media, judges, the cultural elite," he said.

Eric Zemmour announced on 30 November 2021 that he will run for president in next year's election, staking his claim in a video peppered with anti-immigrant rhetoric and warnings France must be saved from decline. Zemmour, 63, is the most stridently anti-Islam and anti-migrant of the challengers seeking to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in the April 2022 vote. His formal entry into the race -- anticipated for weeks -- adds another element on the far-right to the campaign, alongside its traditional leader Marine Le Pen. But it remains to be seen if he will maintain the momentum of recent weeks. He said he had joined the race "so that our daughters don't have to wear headscarves and our sons don't have to be submissive".

Opinion polls in September and October 2021 briefly showed him as being the best-placed candidate to topple Macron, who has yet to declare his bid for a second term but is widely expected to do so early next year. But Zemmour's momentum appeared to fizzle in recent weeks. The latest survey put him third in the first round of the election at 14-to-15 percent, behind Macron and Le Pen. Analysts say it is Le Pen who could benefit from his entry by making her look more reasonable.

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Page last modified: 06-12-2021 10:06:09 ZULU