A lot has changed since incumbent Emmanuel Macron captured the presidency in 2017 – with a global pandemic and a major conflagration in Europe topping the list. Yet the vote looks likely to be heading to another showdown between Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, despite the presence of new faces in the election campaign. A second round of voting is expected to take place on April 24.
The Conversation U.S. asked European politics expert Garret Martin of American University to provide a guide of what to watch for in the election.
1. Encore! When One National Vote Isn’t Enough
April 10 will mark only the first in a series of votes that will take place in France in the coming weeks. In the first round of the presidential election, voters will be deciding between 12 official candidates, including front-runners Macron and Le Pen.
If no one candidates secures more than 50% of all votes – an outcome that is very likely – the two leading candidates qualify for a run-off that is scheduled for April 24. In that second-round vote, the candidate with the most votes will become president.
But the voting won’t end there. The French public will be called upon again to vote in two rounds of parliamentary elections currently scheduled for June 12 and June 19.
These parliamentary elections are just as crucial as the ones to choose a president. Whoever wins the presidency will be dependent on securing a majority of supporters in parliament to implement his or her agenda.
But should Macron win re-election, he may be tempted to dissolve the parliament the next day, which would mean holding the elections two weeks earlier than planned. This could hypothetically give him a chance to capitalize on the momentum of the presidential election to elect a parliament aligned with his agenda.
2. The Demise of the Mainstream
One key thing to watch in the first round of voting is how well – or badly – France’s establishment parties do.
Up until 2017, French politics was dominated by two parties: the leftist Socialist Party and the conservative Les Républicains. Candidates from one or the other of these two parties has won every single presidential election since 1958.
And then came the political earthquake of 2017. In that election, neither party even qualified for the second-round runoff. Les Républicains’ candidate was nudged out a place in the second round by Le Pen and the Socialist candidate could barely muster more than 6% of the vote.
Emmanuel Macron topped the first-round vote in 2017 and went on to win the runoff. He did so as the head of a new party, La République En Marche. Macron positioned himself in the center of the political spectrum, taking oxygen away from the two established parties.
Five years on, the polls have confirmed the demise of these two previously dominant political parties. Barring a major surprise, the Socialist party and Les Républicains will once again be shut out of the second round. Current predictions suggest fewer than 10% of voters will opt for Les Républicains’ Valérie Pécresse and barely 2% for Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris.
A catastrophic result in the first round of voting could very well spell the end of these two parties.
3. And the Rise of the Extremes
Macron’s capturing of the political center is only half of the story. The demise of traditional mainstream parties in France has been helped along by the growth of political extremes, with more voters gravitating to the extreme left and right.
But for the first time in recent French political history, the far-right camp is split between two candidates, seasoned presidential candidate Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, a TV pundit and journalist who has presented himself as the insurgent far right candidate in the 2022 election.
In single-round votes, such a divide might hurt the chances of election success for the right, but that is hardly the case here. Polls suggest that Le Pen and Éric Zemmour combined will attract close to one-third of all votes. And Le Pen is still very likely to qualify for the run-off against Macron, during which she can be expected to pick up a majority of Zemmour’s voters.
Zemmour’s campaign – with its fiery rhetoric and extreme views on migration – has in many ways helped, and not hindered Le Pen. It has bolstered Le Pen’s “normalization” strategy of recent years, through which she has attempted to improve the image of her party and make it appear more respectable.
The apparent success in Le Pen’s strategy is seen in the tightening race. Polls predict only a narrow advantage for Macron in the case of a runoff against Le Pen. In 2017, in comparison, Macron trounced Le Pen in the second round, winning 66% of the votes.
Meanwhile on the left, the radical wing has also been on the ascendancy. Veteran politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in his third presidential campaign, is the clear standard bearer on the left. With his focus on inequality and the rising cost of living, he has firmly placed himself in third place in the polls, with close to 17% of intended votes.
Mélenchon is still unlikely to displace either Macron or Le Pen in the runoff positions. But even so, a third-place finish will give further evidence that French voters are gravitating away from the political center.
4. The Shadow of Putin
The French election is taking place with a backdrop of war in Europe, which has given voters the opportunity to review candidates’ record on Russia.
Macron aside, many of the leading candidates have displayed a history of complacency toward Putin, prior to the invasion of Ukraine. Mélenchon, with his strong ideological animus toward the United States, called Russia a partner early 2022. Meanwhile, Zemmour called Putin a “patriot” defending Russian interests. And Le Pen gave a prominent place to a picture of herself with Putin in campaign leaflets in an apparent bid to highlight her international stature.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, most of these candidates have changed their tone somewhat toward Russia and Putin, or pivoted to other subjects. Le Pen, for instance, has reoriented her campaign toward the rising cost of living and the impact of sanctions on energy prices. And the current polls do not suggest they will face significant repercussions among voters for their past flirting with the Russian president. At the very least, it does not look like like it will prevent Le Pen from being in the runoff again, despite late attempts by Macron to draw attention to his opponents’ perceived “indulgence regarding Vladimir Putin.”
5. Beyond Ukraine
As the apparent limited impact of candidates’ attitude to Putin suggests, the war in Ukraine is not at the top of most voters’ concerns.
With record-high inflation in the Eurozone – running at 5.1% this year – the rising cost of living has become a major source of concern for many French people. It is further compounded by other economic difficulties, such as high energy and housing costs. And pocketbook challenges are also combining with other hot-button debates around the environment and immigration.
While there is no shortage of major topics in the current presidential campaign, the shadow of apathy and cynicism looms large. Forecasts suggest we could see close to 30% abstention rate in the first round of the election. This would be the lowest participation rate since 2002.
Garret Martin, Associate Professor of International Service, American University School of International Service