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French Presidential Election: What can we learn from the first round? 

Three questions to Marc Lazar

French Presidential Election: What can we learn from the first round? 
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

The first round of the French presidential election has retained the same two candidates as 2017’s second round. Beyond these similarities, what major lessons can be learned from this election? Particularly with regards to the state of major traditional parties such as Les Republicains and Parti Socialiste, who have once again been ousted from the second round?

The first lesson to be learnt from this election is that abstention has increased by three points in comparison to 2017. A quarter of voters did not vote, attesting to high levels of disinterest in or disaffection with politics, and an indifference or even rejection of the policy strategies offered by no less than twelve candidates. Moreover, according to an Elabe poll conducted during the first round on Sunday, 42% of abstainers chose not to vote because they do not trust politicians, while 35% of abstainers said that there was no candidate that aligned with their views. The second lesson is that the popularity of the outgoing president has increased by 3.7 points. Emmanuel Macron now has a solid electoral base, and has managed to sway voters who, in 2017, had voted for François Fillon (34%), Benoït Hamon (20%) and abstensionists (22%). The latter group has likely decided to vote for him due to a mixture of agreeing with his policies, and wanting to prevent his main opponent from winning in the second round. 

The two candidates of the large - and evidently outdated - parties Les Republicains and Parti Socialiste have been easily defeated. With less than 5% of the vote, Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains lost most of her right-wing voters to Marine Le Pen (25% of Fillon’s voters in 2017, according to Elabe) and Eric Zemmour (17% of Fillon’s voters in 2017). The more moderate voters chose Macron (more than a third of Fillon’s voters in 2017). Anne Hidalgo has caused an unprecedented low turnout for the Parti Socialiste, with 1.7% of the vote. Former socialist voters preferred Jean-Luc Mélenchon as a more radical candidate, while Emmanuel Macron was the clear favorite for moderate voters. These two parties, which have long dominated the party system and political life, no longer exist at the national level. They have, at least for the moment, been reduced to being local and regional parties of elected officials. Faced with these turbulent times, they risk being divided. Now, they must prepare to face the next electoral deadline, which will determine the members of parliament. 

The left-right divide is becoming less visible, and less relevant. It is the most extreme or radical candidates who are gaining ground.

However, their resounding failures reveal a deeper meaning. The left-right divide is becoming less visible, and less relevant. It is the most extreme or radical candidates who are gaining ground. Eric Zemmour, who obtained little more than 7%, has not succeeded in uniting the right. His disappointment is significant, yet for a newcomer in politics, this score is not tithing. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has increased by more than two points compared to 2017, and has become the main opponent of Emmanuel Macron.

For someone whose political career many considered as finished following her failure in 2017 - and in particular the debate between the two rounds against Macron - she has consolidated her place in the political system. Finally, with 22% of the vote, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has increased by 3.5 points compared to 2017. He has benefited from support on the left, but narrowly missed the second round because the Communist Party, which in 2017 supported him, had Fabien Roussel as a candidate, who took 2.3% of the vote. Without him, Mélenchon could probably have been Macron’s rival in the second round. Combined, these factors reveal a significant shift in France’s political composition. 

The combined votes of Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon - three "anti-system" candidates - total to more than 52% of votes. Given the respective differences between these candidates, is the French electorate becoming more radical? Or that these candidates have "softened" their speeches? Did Eric Zemmour, a new figure of the extreme right, undermine or encourage the Marine Le Pen vote? 

The results of these candidates reveal the strong presence of protest as well as populism in France. They express an exasperation on both a political and social level, and a desire for change. That being said, we should be cautious when considering all the candidates together. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour converge in their sharp criticism of Emmanuel Macron and his so-called "authoritarian character".

They claim to embody a different form of democracy that involves castigating the European Union and NATO, and being relatively complacent vis-à-vis Russia. It is important to note that Jean-Luc Mélenchon stands in opposition to the other two candidates. He does not share their conception of the people and the nation, is resolutely opposed to the extreme right, does not have the same values, and his electorate has fundamentally different views. As an excellent orator who is used to presidential campaigns, Mélenchon presented a program that integrated the traditional economic principles of the left with a series of strong environmental measures, while promoting the transition towards a 6th Republic. He wants to portray himself as both a pragmatic and Utopian leader, characterized by his slogan, "another world is possible".

The results of these candidates reveal the strong presence of protest as well as populism in France. They express an exasperation on both a political and social level, and a desire for change. 

Eric Zemmour has put issues of immigration and Islam at the center of his campaign, has showed support of Vladimir Putin and, after having promoted an economic program with rather liberal undertones, has tried to advance social measures. He has adopted a radical and ideological stance, whose violence has, on the one hand, allowed him to shape an electorate based on ideas. On the other hand, however, this has prevented him from attracting a voter base beyond the 17% of former voters for Fillon, and 11% for Marine Le Pen, respectively in 2017. Paradoxically, while many of the National Rally’s voters chose to support Zemmour, his presence reinforced Marine Le Pen’s campaign of "dediabolisation", which encouraged voters from the Republican right and former abstainers from 2017. She showed a remarkable ability to re-brand herself, particularly in the context of the Ukraine war, making the public forget her closeness to Vladimir Putin by focusing her speeches on the issues of purchasing power and the consequences of anti-Russian sanctions for the daily lives of the French. This is, however, a mask. Marine Le Pen’s program is still anti-immigration and against the EU, despite claiming to no longer want to leave the eurozone. If she became President of the Republic, a crisis would emerge in Brussels that would destabilize the entire European Union. 

There has been a lot of discussion about the "useful vote". How relevant is this concept, and did it actually play a role in the outcome of the election? Will the "barrage vote" in the second round, called for by four candidates who were rejected in the first round, suffice in slowing down the progression of the extreme right? 

There has been a clear presence of the "useful vote". Left-wing voters went to Mélenchon to try and avoid a "Macron-Le Pen" rematch. Voters of the extreme right wanted to have at least one of their representatives rival Macron. With Zemmour’s decline in the polls, Marine Le Pen remained the only reliable option. Finally, a certain number of Macron’s voters may have thought that he managed the war in Ukraine well (34% of voters cited this as the reason for voting, according to Elabe) and that, because of him, France has maintained a place in the world (which motivated 32% of his voters).

The second round promises to be a close competition. The calls of the candidates’ are not automatically heeded by their voters. Emmanuel Macron will have to fight, though we know that he enjoys this kind of challenge. He will have to convince Mélenchon’s voter base to give him their support. According to various surveys, this voter base is divided into three thirds: one third for Macron, one third for Marine Le Pen (while Mélenchon has asked that no votes be cast for her), and one third for abstention. Macron will undoubtedly make declarations in favor of the left and turn his program more "green". Yet will this be enough? Nothing is less certain, as there is a part of the radical left that strongly dislikes him. Emmanuel Macron will also try to appeal to abstentionists, especially young people, though they often have a low voting turnout. On the other hand, the anti-far-right response remains strong in France. Meanwhile, as Marine Le Pen seems softer on the surface, she continues to suffer from a lack of credibility that would be essential to overcome in order to win the presidency. Finally, Emmanuel Macron will undoubtedly put Europe at the center of his campaign, hammering home the point that France can only be great in and with Europe, and hereby putting his anti-Europe opponent in a difficult position.


Copyright: Eric Feferberg / POOL / AFP

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