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2022: Can Macron Hold Onto Power for a Second Term?

ARTICLES - 26 May 2021

They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Looking at precedents can help shed light on the possible scenarios for the 2022 French presidential elections:

  1. The time when a president was sure to stay in power and was effectively re-elected: Charles de Gaulle in 1965. 
  2. The time when a president managed to stay in power in spite of having presided over a political cohabitation which, in the case of the French semi-presidential systems, is when the president serves with a competing parliamentary majority. This happened twice: François Mitterrand in 1988, Jacques Chirac in 2002.
  3. The time when, as had been predicted by the polls, a president failed to be re-elected: Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.
  4. The time when an unpopular president announced that he wouldn’t be running again, despite his initial willingness and ambition to do so: François Hollande in 2017.
  5. The time a president failed to be re-elected, even though he had been expected to win for years: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981.
  6. The time when a serving prime minister (not a president, this time) lost in the first round of the presidential elections, beaten by a rival of his camp: Edouard Balladur in 1995.

For 2022, we can easily discard the first four scenarios: Emmanuel Macron is not in a "cohabitation", his re-election is by no means guaranteed, but neither is his potential defeat. What is almost certain is that he will not give up on being a candidate. Four years after he was first elected, he is more popular than François Hollande was at this time in his presidency, and even with Nicolas Sarkozy. 

So what could scenarios #5 and #6 or maybe a seventh teach us? 

An unexpected defeat 

As described in scenario #5, to the surprise of many (not least the polls), Right-wing President Giscard d’Estaing lost the election in 1981. Socialist candidate François Mitterrand was elected instead. What happened? 

Very late in Giscard’s term, in February 1981, just a few months before the election, his ally - a poorly rallied one - outshone him. Jacques Chirac, the other Right-wing candidate, had been predicted to win 12% of the votes, but ultimately got 18%. Though Chirac lost in the first round of elections, he refused to endorse Giscard as presidential candidate in the second round, thereby dividing the Right-wing vote in the second round. Meanwhile, Georges Marchais, the Communist candidate, was credited with 17% of the voting intentions in October, yet he only obtained 15% of the votes cast in the first round. Poor performances by his rivals left the door wide open for Mitterrand’s success.

Polls currently show that Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, President of the Rassemblement National, will be the two favored candidates for the first round. 

The current political landscape obviously bears no relation to that of a Right-Left divide, neatly split into two, with two dominant parties (or leaders). France, much like other European countries, finds itself in a tri-polarization with "splinters": with Left, Center and Right. The Left is split between La France Insoumise (the far-Left party) and the Parti Socialiste and Europe Ecologie Les Verts (the socialist party and the greens). The Right is split between Les Républicains (the conservative party) and Rassemblement National (the far-Right party). 

Polls currently show that Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, President of the Rassemblement National, will be the two favored candidates for the first round. Interestingly, they show the same voting intentions today as the finalists of 1981 (Giscard and Mitterrand): 28-26%. How voters from across the political spectrum will position themselves regarding Macron and Le Pen in the second round will be crucial for determining who will win the election. This projection is still difficult to make, as no other parties from either the Left or the Right have officially confirmed their candidates. The Right is likely to go through a period of high tension if its "natural" candidate, Xavier Bertrand, a former member of Les Républicains - should he be selected as their official candidate - doesn’t top his 15% of voting intentions. If this is the case, the Right is likely to implode into two groups: those who will want to rally around Macron and those who will want a big Right-wing alliance including the far-Right’s Rassemblement National. France’s upcoming regional elections (in June 2021) will help clarify what the likely trend will be, especially if the Rassemblement National wins in one or several of the larger regions. All in all, if many Left-wing voters refuse to rally with Macron, and if there is a growing appetite for Les Républicains voters to rally behind Le Pen, then she could win. 

Scenario #5 teaches us that the election can be played out - in fact, it is mostly played out - two or three months before the election. That is why polls conducted before this timeframe have limited predictive value.

An early defeat 

Scenario #6: in 1995, the candidate was actually the prime minister in cohabitation, Edouard Balladur (not the president, François Mitterrand). Like for President Giscard in 1981, Balladur was the given winner for a very long time, in both the first and second rounds of elections. As in 1981, he faced competition from a rival from his own camp, Jacques Chirac. But this time, the rival was ahead and eliminated him in the first round. And just like in 1981, the all-changing crystallization occurred at the end of February, three months before the final vote.

If we apply this pattern to 2022, this would mean that what is perceived as the center-Right candidate (the outgoing president, Emmanuel Macron) could be eliminated early, in favor of another center-Right but more conservative candidate (Xavier Bertrand), especially if a number of voters want to avoid a Macron-Le Pen duel like in 2017. This would lead to a second round with Bertrand instead of Macron, still facing Le Pen, and thus get him elected, as Right-wing voters will back their own candidate and not turn to the far-Right.

The most recent polls on the prospects of a second round suggest a head to head between Macron and Le Pen with Macron winning 54% of the popular vote.

A re-election 

Of course another scenario remains possible: that of the re-election of the incumbent. How feasible is this? Can Macron stay in power for a second (and final) term?

The most recent polls on the prospects of a second round suggest a head to head between Macron and Le Pen with Macron winning 54% of the popular vote. Macron’s talk will be to hold onto all of these votes. If not, he might not be perceived as a strong enough alternative to Le Pen. 

If Macron wants to be re-elected, a few conditions would need to be met: 

  1. As said, Macron’s level of popularity (or relative unpopularity) would have to remain the same as it is now, or maybe even increase, especially if France manages to avoid a fourth wave of coronavirus. 
  2. Current Right-wing candidate Xavier Bertrand’s attempt at a "triangulation" would need to fail, leaving Macron all the space he needs to garner the Right-wing vote. 
  3. Thus covering the Right-wing space, he would then need to bank on Right-wing voters not casting their vote in favor of Marine Le Pen, in both the first but especially in the second round. This may explain why he is insisting on security issues at the moment. 
  4. In the event that he does face Marine Le Pen in the second round, the number of no-shows and blank votes would need to be low. Left-wing voters would especially need to show up in the second round to vote against Le Pen.

A solid prediction cannot be made at this stage. The feasibility analysis has at least the advantage of shedding light on the possible conditions for one of the three most probable scenarios to occur. At 54-46%, the gap between Macron and Le Pen is much tighter than it has ever been in the past. Though this is not yet the predominant scenario, the "Le Pen" threat certainly does exist. 

 

 

Copyright: Eric FEFERBERG / AFP

 

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