Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

France’s Presidential Elections Under Europe’s Eye: A Race Already Won

France’s Presidential Elections Under Europe’s Eye: A Race Already Won
 Blanche Leridon
Executive Director, Editorial and Resident Fellow - Democracy and Governance

In April 2017, all of Europe had its eyes glued to the French presidential election. With 2016 bearing witness to the Brexit referendum in the UK as well as Trump’s victory in the United States, the rise of populism seemed inevitable. Was its next stop going to be France, with a win for National Front candidate Marine Le Pen? The French election attracted unprecedented attention, reinforced by the emergence of a new, young candidate by the name of Emmanuel Macron, who was successfully upsetting the old order of France’s political party establishment. 

Five years on, there appears to be far less interest in the 2022 election. With less than a week to go till the French elections, Institut Montaigne hosted a discussion with German, Italian and British correspondents. Over the course of this discussion, it became salient that our European neighbors are paying little attention to an election many consider a foregone conclusion. After the uncertainty regarding 2017’s outcome, German, Italian and British opinion has become somewhat distanced and detached - despite Le Pen’s second-round polling actually being more favorable in 2022 (33.9% in 2017, against 44% now). Why is this the case? And how do our European neighbors view Macron’s five-year term and the evolution of France’s bilateral relations with the UK, Germany and Italy since his election?

Europe’s Underlying Disinterest in the French Presidential Election

There are several factors contributing to the contrasting coverage of the two elections in the UK, Germany and Italy. First, there were the twin blows of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election in 2016 - truly an annus horribilis for Western democrats. Today, however, we are presented with a radically different context marked by two years of the pandemic, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In short, Europe’s attention lies elsewhere. There also remains a (deceptive) impression that Macron’s 2017 success represented a definitive rejection of populism within France.

The emergence of not one but two far-right figures in France is of particular interest in Italy, which is experiencing a similar phenomenon with the rise of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party and its leader, Giorgia Meloni.

However, according to our correspondents, this could well change in the near future. First, there is a sense that the war has been somewhat stalled and that public attention is progressively returning towards domestic issues and politics. Second, the idea that Macron’s presidency  has been damaged by the tragic history of which he has often spoken is gaining ground, and this could result in unexpected success for the right-wing nationalist candidates. The emergence of not one but two far-right figures in France is of particular interest in Italy, which is experiencing a similar phenomenon with the rise of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party and its leader, Giorgia Meloni. Meloni is seen to be gaining enough popularity to threaten Matteo Salvini - leader of the far-right party Lega and Senator in the Italian Senate since March 2018 - a man previously regarded as an ally but now viewed as a rival. According to our Italian correspondent, it could even be said that France, in its current context, is emulating Italy’s role as an “open-air political laboratory.” It remains to be seen whether the elections of April 10th and 24th will confirm this.

A Contrasting Set of Balance Sheets

Let us now turn to the results of the last five years. Overall, the President’s domestic agenda has been favorably received by the foreign press, with particular emphasis on the reduction of France’s unemployment rate to 7.4% (a rate not seen since the 2008 crisis) alongside rising rates of overall employment both during the pandemic and for those over fifty. The candidate’s target of twenty-five tech unicorns was finally achieved in January 2022 (from a starting point of three in 2017) and, despite the pandemic, economic growth was achieved in 2021. However, for our correspondents, these developments should not obfuscate the significant divisions and inequalities that continue to plague France. In particular, this positive economic balance sheet is sharply contrasted by the failings of democratic renewal. What has been done to address the grievances that Macron urged citizens to list during the great debate? What about the Citizens’ Climate Convention’s conclusions and the door-to-door questionnaires Macron’s party conducted in 2017? These should have opened up the democratic and civil debate, renewing and reinforcing transparency and dialogue concerning politicians and the political process. The general consensus among our European neighbors is that France has failed in implementing these goals. 

On the other hand, at the European level, our neighbors see Macron as having made considerable progress. His Sorbonne speech, the relevance and urgency of which has been reinforced by both the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, is seen as a particular highlight. The emergence of the concept of European sovereignty, which only a few months ago appeared absurd to some in Europe, now is uniting member states  due to the events in Ukraine. Even before the war, the German coalition agreement accepted this, explicitly referencing its wish to see the emergence of “a democratically consolidated, active and strategically sovereign European Union.” 

In terms of wider international affairs, opinions are far more mixed. The correspondents feel Macron has made little progress overseas, including in his dialogues with Putin and Trump, his attempts at brokering peace in Lebanon, or the situation in the Sahel. According to our German correspondent, the French President quickly lost the role of “savior” that he initially held, particularly in the eyes of some Germans; the promise that “France is back” has translated into an exercising of power that is seen as solitary and somewhat arrogant—an approach poorly received by our European neighbors.

Draghi, Scholz, Johnson: Diverging Relationships with President Macron

Perceptions of the French political landscape within Europe are very much informed by the nature of relations between the French President and other European leaders.  We may first consider France’s relationship with the United Kingdom. We know that Boris Johnson and Macron could hardly be more different in their understanding of politics, their vision of Europe, and their exercising of power. However, at the beginning of the Johnson premiership in 2019, these differences did not prevent them from displaying a degree of proximity.  Their first meeting in August 2019 appeared to be an attempt to build a friendly rapprochement. But this dynamic was brief, and now distrust—even hostility—dominates the bilateral relationship.

Our correspondents consider that the relationship between the two countries and their leaders has rarely been so bad—and this is not just due to Brexit. The proof is in the pudding: the January 2018 Franco-British summit at Sandhurst, when Theresa May was still in power, delivered  comparatively promising results within a particularly delicate context. And while the September 2021 dispute over Australian submarines has further chilled relations between the two leaders, it is worth noting that Joe Biden’s US has stepped up efforts to restore trust. In contrast, Johnson’s UK appears far less willing to renew relations.

Boris Johnson and Macron could hardly be more different in their understanding of politics, their vision of Europe, and their exercising of power.

Italy seems to have followed the opposite trajectory. “Season One” brought the sovereigntist government of Matteo Salvini’s League and Luigi Di Maio’s 5-Star Movement to power in 2018. Even though the newly elected President Macron displayed a strong willingness to work with Italy, this desire was quickly thwarted. Worse still, it suffered one of the  greatest diplomatic crises of recent times with the  withdrawal of the French Ambassador to Italy in February 2019, support for the gilets jaunes movement from Italian Deputy Prime Minister di Maio, as well as vengeful tweets and an anti-Macron coalition formed with Viktor Orban over the refugee question. Now, “Season Two” is turning the tables, largely due to the rise of one man—Mario Draghi. Draghi and Macron have a strong bond, sharing similar visions over the exercise of power, as well as a mutual attachment to the technical details of issues. In December 2021, the two went as far as publishing a joint op-ed in the Financial Times, arguing for a relaxation of the Maastricht budgetary rules to provide Europe with “more room to maneuver” and “make the key expenditures necessary for our future and our sovereignty.” A few days earlier, the two leaders had signed the Quirinal Treaty, which was intended to renew the foundation for future relations between the two nations. It aims to deepen the relationship through coordinating defense strategies, creating a joint Franco-Italian civic service, developing student mobility, and strengthening exchanges between cultural industries—measures aimed at strengthening cooperation and forging what was described as a “Franco-Italian approach.” The general view of the correspondents is that, at least for now, Franco-Italian relations have been renewed and re-energized. 

Franco-German relations have undergone similar changes, albeit on a smaller scale. Irritation with Macron, particularly over his strong stances on European budgetary policies, has gone back and forth under both Merkel and Scholz. The two countries also reached an agreement of their own, the Aachen Treaty, signed by Merkel and Macron in January 2019  on the 56th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty. Today the Franco-German relationship appears to be experiencing a new peak. Newly aligned on previously contentious issues (such as the management of fiscal deficits) the German Chancellor and French President seem to be singing the same tune. If the German finance ministry’s appointment of the liberal Christian Lindner - a stalwart defender of budgetary orthodoxy - may have suggested differences, dialogue and progress are continuing apace between the two governments, both in the economic and political arena. Finally, regarding responses to the war in Ukraine, our correspondents stress the mutual respect between the French and German governments,  especially concerning energy supplies, as well as the shared attitudes towards Putin—both Berlin and Paris continue to emphasize the importance of maintaining dialogue with Moscow. 

How will these relationships evolve in the coming weeks and months? The French presidential election will provide some answers.  However, we will need to take heed of the upcoming elections of France’s neighbors—by spring 2023 in Italy and around May 2024 in the United Kingdom. In all three cases, domestic as well as international politics are far from being settled.



Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English