The campaign for the French presidential election in April is in full swing – minus the most obvious candidate, Emmanuel Macron – who is also the front-runner. Here it is already mid-February, less than 60 days to Round One on 10 April. His announcement has been expected for some time in mid-February but has clearly been delayed, given his preoccupations with an odd combination of diplomatic and domestic uncertainties. In this series of essays on “Democracy in Jeopardy”, I have been looking at the challenges to democracy even where democracies have traditionally been the strongest – in countries like France, India and the United States. In this essay, I survey the 2022 French presidential election campaign, with its plethora of competing candidates, all of whom are maneuvering to be the one to defeat President Macron’s expected bid for a second run to the Elysée Palace. Will this election help to reverse the alarming signs of global disillusionment with democracy, even in a country like France, or will it fall prey to ever more bumps on the road? Here’s a first look at the French scene, with additional segments planned as the campaign unfolds.
Early Signs of Gearing UP
Although we will all know by 4 March who has announced and has qualified to be on the ticket, the official Presidential campaign can only begin on March 28th. The first thing to note about this campaign is that French rules are very strict about what candidates themselves can do and spend in a campaign – and also about what the media are authorized to do, starting even before that March date. Some of these restrictions went into effect as early as January 1. The candidates also have spending limits and donor contribution limits (plus no corporate contributions at all). These are significantly different from the rules for American presidential elections. What is more, the election process itself is further compressed into two rounds that are only two weeks apart. The first round this year is scheduled for April 10th and the second for April 24th. That makes for a very short campaign season, which is also significantly different from the American system!
The French presidential campaign, nonetheless, has been dominating the political news for months – even in and around the regional and departmental elections last year, in June of 2021. This does suggest that it isn’t that much different from what we are accustomed to seeing in the American presidential campaigns. At the time of those elections last year, it was already recognized – and widely discussed – that the results of those regional elections would have a bearing on presidential candidacies. It was, of course, assumed even than that President Emmanuel Macron would be in the race for a second five-year term. The main subject was, therefore, who among the likely contenders would be able to mobilize a large enough base of support to be his main challenger. While it was also assumed that the head of the controversially right-wing Front National, Marine Le Pen would be the one to prevail as his main challenger, the French presidential race has typically attracted dozens of candidates. And that has certainly been the case for this 2022 election.
The regional elections of 2021, then, were of particular interest to set the stage for 2022. I wrote a separate commentary on these 2021 elections (posted here), and here I only highlight three aspects of their relevance for 2022. First, the dismal showing of Macron’s “non-party” LREM, even where well-known national figures were on the LREM’s regional lists, suggested that the enthusiasm with which his “outsider gambit” of bucking the political establishment with a new party of the center had failed to sprout any grass roots anywhere. This did not look good for Macron. Second, the image of an ever-rising star from the extreme right, Marine Le Pen, was also tarnished by the failure of her party to win any of the regional elections. This was especially striking here in Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur (PACA, where I live as an interested observer of the French political scene. This did not look good for Le Pen. But third, and most significantly, the huge drop in voter turnout across the regions signaled a profound disgruntlement with the political establishment at large. This did not look good for democracy!
The only reading of this glass as half full instead of half empty has to depend on distinguishing French voting patterns for a presidential race as something significantly different from any of these other local or regional elections. After all, French presidential elections, in contrast to any of the others, have regularly attracted consistently high turnout, almost always above 70% and a solid 75% in 2017 when Macron was first elected. An optimist will say that the more recent regional elections (at 33% in 2021) or municipal elections (at 41% in 2020) or even the European parliamentary elections (at 50% in 2019) are simply not a pattern for the presidential level. A pessimist might note that those numbers have been going down year by year.
That said, there is some merit in suggesting that the national focus is very much where French voters are mostly strongly inspired to vote, given the very nature of the French political history. And it does seem that the polling of prospective voter turnout for this next one shows an upward movement from 61% in December, to 66% in February. This is still below the turnout for presidential elections in years past but well above the less-than-presidential voter turnout of the past few years. (One should also remember that any French citizen over the age of 18 is automatically registered to vote. In the US, voter registration is not automatic, and close to one-third of Americans who would be eligible to vote are usually not even registered. So the record turnout in the 2020 presidential election in the US, at 68% was only 68% of the 63% of eligible voters who were actually registered to vote. )
The French show, in any case, has been on the road for some time now. And without Macron officially in the running, the media coverage has featured the gamesmanship (and polling numbers) among the varied right-wing candidates, on the one side of road, as it were, and the varied left-wing candidates, on the other side. The polling activity has been almost daily about who is moving up and who is moving down and who is gaining or losing supporters from whom. So the race does have a lot of media attention and apparent voter interest. One can hope that the prospective voter turnout will be steadily upward and in fact prove to be as high as ever.
In the lead-up to when President Macron finally announces his candidacy, the leading figures in this media game are positioning themselves either to the right or to the left. On the right side are a center/right Republican (Valérie Pécresse), an emphatically right-wing Marine Le Pen and an outrageously extreme right-wing media personality turned politician Eric Zemmour. On the left, the leading figures are an environmentalist (Yannick Jadot). a leftist (Jen-Luc Melanchon), and an extreme leftist (i.e. Communist by the name of Fabien Roussel), but also a social democrat (Anne Hidalgo) and a new entrant (Christiane Taubira), also a social democrat. Of course, given the apparently more unified and stronger factions on the right rather than the left, most of the media attention is being direct to the maneuverings among the right-wingers.
Challenges from the Right
On the right, then, there are three main contenders – the unrelenting Marine Le Pen actively campaigning to keep the supposedly dedicated right-wing voting bloc of the Rassemblement National or National Rally in English from leakage among her supporters to the right while also trying to expand the base more toward the center. (Note the name change, made last year, from “Front National” to “Rassemblement National”.) The media focus is more directed to the leakage in the direction of Eric Zemmour, the crazy one, rather than than to any gains at the expense of Valèrie Pècresse, the more centrist one. Mr. Zemmour keeps going around the country gleefully recruiting supporters from the RN for his new “Reconquete” party – making a big publicity stunt out of his 100,000th new member deserting the RN. His extremist rhetoric on building a wall around Europe to keep the migrants out, kicking out the Moslems and stirring up the anti-masking, anti-vaccine populists can stir up the social media, but also, regrettably, the mainstream media. He is like Donald Trump – or Steve Bannon, actually. Repeatedly breaking the anti-hate speech laws without letting up.
Valérie Pécresse, on the other hand, has the difficult task of keeping her very diverse Republican would-be stars from bolting either to the extreme right or, perhaps more worriedly for her, to the left – i.e. toward the center and Macron’s LREM. She has been on her own learning curve, with a rally in Paris that was supposed to fire up her base of support but where she basically fizzled. And she has an uphill battle to bring all of the factions within the Republicans together.
It is useful to put her candidacy in a bit of context among the Republicans. They already suffered from a disastrous presidential campaign and candidate in 2017 (François Fillon) who had won an open primary against the expected winner among several other more establishment types and had difficulty keeping the disgruntled losers together, especially after he himself was exposed in a nepotism scandal involving his wife on the public payroll for a non-existent job. Anyway, his poor showing in 2017 split up the party even further, with a center-versus-right power struggle under a new party leader who then alienated the likes of Ms. Pécresse, the more centrist Republican regional president of the Iles-de-France region (including Paris). She actually pulled out of the party in protest to its rightward shift in 2019 but came back in to get re-elected as the regional governor for Iles-de-France in 2021 – and then to run, as she announced soon thereafter, for President Macron’s job.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. There were several other ambitious Republicans, including a few of the “good ol’ guys”, who entered the race for Macron’s job in the summer of 2021. One of these, the newly re-elected regional governor for the Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand by name, was the strongest of these characters. Meanwhile, Valérie Pécresse had narrowly won re-election in the Iles-de-France region, and there were also others like Michel Barnier or Eric Ciotti or Philippe Juvin who were jockeying for position, in spite of the assumption that Xavier Bertrand was the front-runner. I was especially intrigued by the Ciotti maneuvers, given that his political base was in nearby Nice. He had been very vocal among the Republicans who had visibly and repeatedly condemned the more moderate Republican leadership that had agreed to a coalition with Macron’s LREM in the PACA regional election in 2021. As a former mayor of Nice, he had broken ranks with the current mayor Christian Estrosi, who himself had chosen to desert the Republicans in favor of aligning with Macron.
So the summer months of 2021 were devoted to deciding if the Republicans could somehow avoid a repeat of the scandalous open primary that had produced the lackluster Fillon in 2017. Some, including Bertrand the front-runner, didn’t even want a primary at all. But the inner leadership of the Republicans finally hammered out a compromise in September. The Republicans held a two-round closed primary in early December, with careful monitoring of who would be eligible to participate. The primary was thus open to a limited number of 122,000 eligible Republicans, which was a striking contrast to the 4 million voters who had voted to make Fillon their candidate in an open Republican primary back in 2017.
Surprisingly, Ciotti came out on top in the first round, but with only 26% of the vote, and with Pécresse in second place at 24%. – not Bertrand! In fact, the favored Bertrand came in fourth place with 22%, even behind Barnier with 24% and only Juvin way behind at 3%. That meant that the second round to choose the winner in this closed Republican primary had to be between Ciotti and Pécresse. Were the losers going to veer to the right with Ciotti or were they going to settle for Pécresse? The second round did give Pécresse a solid 61% to Ciotti’s 39%. But the internal dynamics among these individuals continue to involve media reports on various nuances of support for Pécresse, the first woman to lead a Republican ticket for President! And, of course, there’s that former President Nicolas Sarkozy (a Republican) in the wings as well – typically discredited with corruption charges but still a power behind the scenes – and saying nothing to help Pécresse.
The French Use of Primaries and Godfathers
It’s useful to pause here a bit to comment on the topic of primaries. For this particular presidential election, a few of the candidates have “won” primaries, while others have merely announced throwing their hat in the ring. These primaries, however, are not the same as they are in the US where they are a part of the federalized system of democratic governance. Presidential candidates in the US have to work state by state (aka region by region in France) to win delegates’ support for a national political convention. Primaries and/or conventions are held at the state level, with each state controlling the selection process for delegates. It used to be mostly behind-the-scenes politicking at these conventions (and at the national conventions) that was gradually and significantly replaced by the widespread use of primaries – a reform measure that has created problems of its own. But in France, there is no federal system, no state-by-state or region-by-region campaign to win a nomination. The parties – and candidates – are basically left to their own devices to determine how to choose an “official” nominee.
On the other hand, the main threshold to qualify as a presidential candidate does not rest, then, with either party conventions or primaries. It takes the form of a process of transmitting nominations from locally or regionally elected officials to the Constitutional Council (the “Conseil constitutionnel”), the French equivalent of the US Supreme Court. The Constitutional Council publishes a list of some 42,000 elected officials – mayors, members of parliament, regional and departmental council members and other combinations of mayors (agglomerations and such), who may submit a sponsorship form for his or her preferred candidate. Each such sponsor is called a “parrain” (or “godfather” – maybe also a “godmother”?). To be placed on the official presidential ballot, the Constitutional Court must receive a minimum of 500 “parrains” (or “godfathers”) for a candidate, drawn, furthermore, from at least 30 different departments. One should note that most of these “parrains” are very localized mayors (and not regional or departmental level politicians) since the country has some 36,000 communes of varying size, each with a mayor, but that’s another story.
Starting on January 27th this year and ending on March 4th, the Constitutional Court receives “parrainage” forms and publishes a tally of the number of “parrains” for each candidate twice a week. The final list of the candidates who accumulated 500 or more will be announced on March 7th, although the “official” campaign won’t begin until March 28th. At this point, the Constitutional Council is showing some 39 candidates, of whom three have now met the threshold (Macron first, but also Pécresse and Hidalgo from the two historically well established Republican and Socialist parties). In the PACA region and specifically the Alpes-Maritimes Department, where I live, Pécresse has been the overwhelming favorite so far, not Macron – and, of course, also not Hidalgo.
Not all 39 will meet the threshold, but the system does seem to work in favor of many more than those who had worked to win their party’s primaries. Back in 2017, for example, there were 17 who made the final list! One has to wonder about all those non-serious candidates, but it certainly reinforces the French image of “voting with the heart” on the first round and “voting with the head” only on the second round. And some of these are perennials, running in one presidential election after another – pushing their lost causes, as it were. It’s a reminder of Harold Stassen, the perennial presidential candidate in the US. Their affiliations, typically extreme left or extreme right, have colorful names like Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), Débout (Stand Up!), Resistons (Let Us Resist – connected it seems with the Gilets Jaunes movement), or Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitalistes. And then, this time around, there is actually a bona fide Communist in the running, Fabien Roussel, who already has over 380 “parrains” and will probably make it onto the list.
To return to the list of more serious contenders, this essay has already touched on the three major candidates on the right (Pécresse, Le Pen and Zemmour). They are receiving the most attention because they are all in contention in the first round of the election on 10 April to be the one to face Macron in the second round on 24 April. The pollsters are themselves getting lots of media attention for their numbers – what with the numbers for all three of them hovering around 15 to 17 %, well above any of the candidates from the left, but well below the roughly 25% of the votes that are expected to go to Macron. The pollsters are even running numbers on how the second round would look for each of these three in contention against Macron. At this point, even though Marine Le Pen has been hovering at a higher number than the other two in the first round, it is the Republican candidate Valérie Pécresse who would be the most serious challenger to Macron in the second round. Here are the range of recent polling numbers as of mid-February, conveniently listed as a composite from multiple polling sources in Wikipedia:
First round: Macron at around 25%, Le Pen at around 17%, Pécresse at around 16%, and Zemmour at around 14%.
Second round: Macron (52%) versus Pécresse (48%); Macron (55%) versus Le Pen (45%); Macron (62%) versus Zemmour (38%).
The fluidity of these numbers will continue to attract media attention, and it will also be useful to see if the pollsters are tracking expected voter turnout as well. Meanwhile, the three are definitely attracting attention as they maneuver to attract establishment figures to their camps and gin up numbers for political rallies. Occasionally, they make catchy policy proposals, too – on building a wall around Europe or raising the retirement age to 65 or the like.
Challenges from the Left
Turning to the left, it’s almost as if they get mentioned only because they are associated with liberal (in the American definition of “liberal”) causes that we would all like to see more widely supported in any democracy. For one, there are the environmentalists. In the US, where one would certainly like to see environmental causes more widely supported by the mainline political parties, there is no likelihood of an exclusively environmentally oriented party winning anything. But in France, as in Europe, they have a momentum on their own, albeit rarely a winning momentum. Well, that is only at the national level. The main environmental party, in France, the “Europe Ecology Les Verts” (EELV), has won several municipal elections, among which are Grenoble, Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux! Somewhat ironically, the EELV is building a grass-roots base from which to build upwards, in contrast to the LREM with its Napoleonic style of take-charge leadership at the top with no real base on which to build.
And then there’s the practice of coalition building with other political parties. The environmentalists are doing rather well in other European countries if not in France, most strikingly in Germany. In line with that, too, there’s the European Parliament, where environmental parties have come together from different countries, including France to operate as a rather effective bloc. The current EELV Presidential candidate in France, Yannick Jadot, happens to be an EELV representative from France in the European Parliament. Without delving into the spectrum of intra-environmentalist positions, I leave it here by noting that they did have their own presidential primary way back in September 2021. This primary, by the way, had 122,000 participants, a similar number to that for the Republicans in December. But Jadot’s current polling number for the presidential race hovers around 7 or 8%, half the number of Pécresse or LePen or Zemmour.
The Parti Socialist (PS), the French version of a social democratic party, was the largest left-of-center party in France for much of the Fifth Republic (but also very prominent even before Charles De Gaulle brought about this presidential system of governance to France in the 1950s). Both François Mitterrand and François Hollande were elected Presidents from the Socialist ranks, and the party has frequently been strong enough to have majorities in the National Assembly and a majority of the regional governments. But its internal tensions in more recent years have been both ideologically and personally driven to witness breakaway factions and a significant decline in popular support. Hollande (Socialist) may have defeated Nicolas Sarkozy (Republican) in his bid for a second term in 2012, and the Socialists even had a majority in the National Assembly in the first few years of Hollande’s presidency, but this proved to be a sort of “flash in the pan”. And Hollande ended his term with such low approval ratings that he didn’t even run for re-election in 2017.
Declining popular support for the Socialistsm however, had started before Hollande, something that was symptomatic of social democratic parties throughout Europe in the 2000s and 2010s. In France, it was so aggravated by the internal divisions with the French Socialist Party that Hollande’s decision not to seek a second term was actually welcomed by the party. But the result was that the Socialist Party candidate in that race, Benoit Hamon, garnered only 6.36% of the vote! And, of course, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement not only brought him to the Presidency but also helped deliver an overwhelming majority for the newly formed centrist movement/party LREM in the 2017 legislative elections, wiping out the Socialists in the National Assembly as well. While the Socialists have retained five of the regional councils and lots of the municipal and departmental slots, the weakened image of the Socialists nationally is more depressed than ever. Their presidential candidate in 2022, Anne Hidalgo, who is also the mayor of Paris, is polling at well below 5%.
Although it isn’t comparable to the popular strength among the candidates to the right of center, there are two notable spin-offs, as it were, that reinforce the splintered nature of the center/left in French politics. One of these is driven by the strong personality of Jean-Luc Melanchon, a former Socialist Party member who established his own party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). It is a substantial remnant of the left – running a primary that drew 260,000 to give Melanchon the nod. Contrast that with the 22,000 who came out in the PS (Socialist) primary for Hidalgo. His polling continues to be the highest among all the center/left candidates, hovering around 9 or 10%. But that is still way off of the projected tally for any of the three right-sided candidates of note.
More recently (the Socialist and France Insoumise primaries having already transpired in 2021), another “personality” of the left, as it were, decided to jump into the race – the former and very popular Justice Minister in the Hollande administration, Christiane Taubira. As a gesture to promote unity among the leftists, she proposed the holding of yet another “primaire populaire” (popular primary) in late January 2022. The organizers of this popular primary successfully recruited 467,000 voters to sign up and then conducted a different kind of preferential primary weighting all prospective leftist candidates, regardless of whether they agreed to be involved or not – including, by the way, the environmentalists, too! Needless to say, Taubira was the only one among the major contenders to “agree” to the primary, and she won the highest score. In the national polling, however, she hovers around 5%.
The left-leaning pack this time around also features a “real” Communist Party candidate, Fabien Roussel. As noted above, he is already collecting a generous portion of “parrainages” and will probably make it onto the official ballot that will be announced on March 7th. As also mentioned, there are several others who will show up on the list. But Roussel’s polling score hovers around 2.5 to 3 %, unlike these others. It is ironic, in a way, that all of these leftists could, if they banded together, be competitive as a bloc with a higher total than even Macron. But this isn’t going to happen. The serious contenders in this race are clearly on the right.
What will happen in the days and weeks ahead? We are down to less than 60 days, and we still don’t have the main candidate in the mix. One can see a definite shift to the right in the underlying French political culture and a President Macron who has veered in that direction while also trying to be a combination of both left and right. The right-wing issues have been identified as security, immigration and Islamic terrorism. Adding to that, pandemic fatigue has been setting in to stir up the discontents like the gilets jaunes of 2018 and 2019, as well as the “anti-vaxers”. It is, in this sense, rather interesting that two of the three challengers to Macron from the right are women! France could conceivably have its first woman President, since women’s rights issues tend to be associated with the left. (Well, neither Margaret Thatcher nor Angela Merkel came from the left. So perhaps this is no surprise, either.)
Inflation and purchasing power, meanwhile, are threatening to become more broadly shared concerns among French voters. And there is always the hugely disruptive potential of a Russian invasion of Ukraine that could throw everything into a free-for-all. Not that this in itself would sway French voters one way or the other. But there is a pro-European element to the French presidential role that is complicating the domestic political debate. One aspect of this is the recent announcement by President Macron to build five new nuclear reactors – quite a reversal from his previous commitment to phase away from nuclear power for environmental reasons. Yes, the EU itself is debating a strategy to include nuclear power and natural gas in a transition to carbon neutrality by 2050, but it is not where the environmentalists are. But the timing fits with a warning to Russia that nuclear power can replace a natural gas pipeline.
Issues, though, may not drive the electorate as much as the element of public trust and disaffection with politicians and public institutions. To conclude here with a return to the thematic focus of this series, the concerns about “democracy in jeopardy” are all about the deglobalization of things, the populist nationalism that seems to be taking hold, and all that it entails for demagoguery and deference to authoritarian leadership. Will France fall prey to these threats to its democratic values and civic-mindedness? One could argue that the rightward-leaning electorate is worrisome, reinforced by sloganeering against American-style “wokism” and pro-Islamic rhetoric being unduly categorized as “anti-Semitic”. More seriously, though, the “abstention” rates of the elections in 2020 and 2021 are alarming signs of things going in the wrong direction. The weeks ahead will be telling.