Can Emmanuel Macron Win His Rematch With Marine LePen?
Since he has alienated some on the left, he’ll need all the moderate support he can get.
On Sunday, French voters headed to the polls to vote in the first round of the presidential election. Incumbent Emmanuel Macron won 27 percent of the vote and his arch-rival Marine Le Pen 23 percent, setting up a repeat of the 2017 election for the second round, scheduled for April 24.
The rematch between the centrist president and his far-right opponent comes with a set of interesting data points and important facts. Compared to 2017, Macron has a slightly more comfortable lead going into the second round of voting, as then he won 24 percent of the first-round vote to Le Pen’s 21 percent. However, the far-right vote in this first round was diluted by columnist-turned-politician Eric Zemmour, an independent newcomer who scored 7 percent of the vote and who has already called upon his supporters to actively choose Le Pen in the runoff. The vote was also characterized by a larger abstention rate: 25 percent of eligible voters stayed home, compared to 22 percent in 2017.
The talking points of the analysts and commentators during election night in France are the same as last time around: "In the first round, we choose; in the second, we eliminate." This refers to the notion of the so-called “Republican front,” which translates for an American audience as “the moderate consensus.” This doctrine demands that moderate political parties will support any moderate candidate in the runoff vote if they are running against an extremist candidate such as Le Pen. Macron relies on the support of voters from other moderate parties to secure his reelection.
That said, while Macron might have been the pragmatic second-round choice for voters seeking to prevent a Le Pen presidency in 2017, he might not be this time around. Le Pen is banking on the resignation of left-wing voters, who feel disenfranchised by Macron's five-year reign. He has given more powers to law enforcement and plans to increase the retirement age from 62 to 65—making it difficult for the left to pick him in the runoff. Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in third in Sunday's vote with 22 percent, did not call upon his supporters to vote for Macron but instead declared that “not one single vote should be given to Madame Le Pen.” If his supporters stay home on April 24, Le Pen’s chances to win increase significantly.
France’s Republican Party—which in France is described as conservative, yet would rather be seen as center-right in the U.S.—has traditionally abstained from supporting the moderate candidate in the runoff, yet its candidate, Valérie Pécresse, said she would vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round. Pécresse tried to lure Le Pen voters with a nod to the Great Replacement theory—the far-right conspiracy theory that governing elites are complicit in an organized replacement of the white French population with Muslim immigrants. The attempt clearly failed, as Pécresse did not even reach the 5 percent mark in the vote on Sunday.
Macron, who campaigned very little ahead of the first round of voting, will now face Le Pen in TV debates. In 2017, he was a new face, having done only a couple of years as minister of the economy under President François Hollande. His political party, En Marche, was newly created for the purpose of his election—a party that presented itself more as a startup than a democratic institution. Now the magic is gone: France went through two years of stringent lockdown restrictions, massive protests against police violence, and the yellow vest movement, which forced the government to back down on raising fuel taxes.
That said, the current war in Ukraine could be a devastating blow for Le Pen's chances in the second round. Her past friendliness with Vladimir Putin makes her vulnerable in the debates. In 2014, her party took out a loan of $12 million from a Russian bank to fund a local election campaign. A campaign flyer for the presidential election—printed before the invasion—features Le Pen posing with Putin as proof of her international leadership. In recent weeks, Le Pen has avoided questions about the war in Ukraine by focusing her efforts on inflation and purchasing power. She will be unable to avoid the issue in the upcoming TV debate with Emmanuel Macron on April 20.
Macron does not need to convince Le Pen voters to switch to him, but he needs to make sure that moderates rally behind him in the second round. Le Pen, meanwhile, needs to remind left-wing audiences that Macron thoroughly disappointed them. This makes the debate inherently different from the United States, where both candidates campaign for swing voters. Macron will likely remind audiences that Le Pen’s platform will stigmatize immigrants, alienate France from the European Union, and undo progress on environmental protection. Le Pen, in turn, will focus on the government’s performance, particularly on labor policies that have upset trade unions. In 2017, as many as a quarter of members of large trade unions supported Le Pen, while most abstained in the runoff vote.
Most international commentators will, however, overestimate the immediate effect of a potential Le Pen presidency. Even if the far-right candidate moves into the Elysée Palace, she still needs to get a majority in the French National Assembly election, which begins on June 12. Without a parliamentary majority, she would be unable to pass legislation, triggering a rare but precedented “cohabitation” in which the president and prime minister would be at odds politically. Even though Le Pen would represent France on the world stage, the means to put her political platform into practice would be paralyzed by a hostile parliament. Her party's standing in many areas in France has so far not been sufficient to get anywhere near a majority in the National Assembly. Le Pen’s party currently holds only eight out of the 577 seats in France's lower house.
First polling for the runoff presidential vote puts Macron ahead at 52-48, within the margin of error. The events of the last five years have played into the hands of Le Pen’s “National Rallye” party (formerly National Front): lockdown policies to contain the spread of COVID-19, reduced purchasing power, and a disconnect between the priorities of urban voters and those of rural communities. Compared to 2017, Macron also needs to deal with the fact that any president running for reelection in France has endless protests and strikes on his record.
Macron's reelection is not in the bag, as historical events remind us. For one, no French president has ever been reelected after maintaining a majority in parliament or being a first-time candidate. Adding to that, two presidential candidates who were previously believed to be the self-evident winners did not get elected in the end: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1981 and Lionel Jospin in 2002 (he did not even make it to the second round). Since France reduced the president's term to five years down from seven, no candidate has been reelected for a second five-year term.
Macron has two weeks to convince the nation that for the sake of France’s image and for the integrity of the French Republican consensus, he will be, for many, the lesser of two evils.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg, covering EU politics and policy. He tweets in German, French, and English at @wirtzbill.