The first-round of this year’s presidential elections in France is over, and the results are in. President Macron leads with 28.5 per cent of the vote, entering the second round rematch against the right-wing Marine Le Pen who, at 24.6 per cent, has never been closer to power. The far-leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon outdid his performance five years ago, reaching third place with a strong 20.3 per cent. He is therefore unable to enter round two, but his voters will likely be the crowning force on 24 April.
The other candidates came wide of the mark. Eric Zemmour, the far-right intellectual who might even be too toxic for Le Pen, reached a meagre 7 per cent of the vote. But he managed to surpass Valerie Pecresse and Anne Hidalgo, whose historical parties of power, Les Republicaines and Parti Socialiste respectively, only gained 6.6 per cent between them. This latter result marks the definite end of France’s traditional left-right division, and bodes ill for the future of the French establishment.
The results do in fact represent the far right’s best ever performance in a French election. A third of almost 75 per cent of the French electorate opted for Le Pen, Zemmour or Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a minor nationalist figure. If Zemmour had supported Le Pen in the first round instead of running himself, she may well have marched ahead of the incumbent. He has now advised his base to plump for Le Pen in the second round, but the leader of Rassemblement National has invested much time and political capital into distancing herself from Zemmour, choosing the cost of living crisis instead of mass immigartion as her leading plank.
Le Pen’s main difficulty will be winning over some of Melenchon’s base, who tend to be on the lower end of the social ladder but are also wary of a far-right insurgency. These are the people who are suffering most from the squeeze on living standards – consequence not only of the war in Ukraine, but also of Macron’s draconian Covid measures. She will also hope to appeal to Melenchon’s opposition to NATO and his nationalist rhetoric, even though the leftist leader has called on his supporters not to give “a single vote to Marine Le Pen.”
A win for Le Pen would mean protecting French industry, curtailing the rights of foreigners on French soil, and rejecting EU laws she deems undermine French interests. Her rhetoric focuses on “law and order” and “protection” from economic instability, two major concerns for French citizens. But she has also flirted with withdrawing France from NATO’s military command structure, which, together with her previous support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, would deeply hurt her run for the presidency in the current pro-Ukraine climate.
In order to secure his second term, Macron will now have to show that he is able to address these core issues, both in order to galvanise those who stayed home during the first round, and to convince the far-left that he is not only the “president of the rich.” He was rather late to the first round campaign, focused as he was on finding a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.
But during his victory speech on Monday he seemed to have grasped the high stakes of having Marine Le Pen residing in the Elysee. Not only did he set out to build a “dam” against the far-right by setting up a new “Republican Front”, but he also made some significant overtures to Melenchon’s voters. He vowed that he was ready to “invent something new to unify different politics for a common purpose,” and that “the only project for the cost of living is ours.”
President Macron is a canny political campaigner, and it seems unlikely that he will be ousted from office Sunday week. After five years of crisis management, from the Gilet Jeune to Covid to Ukraine, he still managed to come out more than 4 percentage points ahead of his 2017 victory. The liberal establishment for which he speaks is the strongest force in shaping French public opinion. The main demographics to which he appeals are the retired over-65s and the affluent young who, alongside the populist left, could easily keep him in office until 2027. Unless something very bizarre happens between now and the run-offs, President Macron is here to stay.