French elections have been held at the municipal level in 2020 (Round One), regional level in 2021 (Round Two) , and now at the presidential (Round Three) and legislative (Round Four) levels in 2022. I have been writing about them in the context of an American living in France,, with a deep interest in how even the strongest of democracies are in jeopardy of succumbing to the forces of authoritarian populism. My interest extends, furthermore, to looking at the similarities and differences between French and American political cultures and systems of governance. In my last essay on France, written just as the presidential election was “officially” underway, my focus was on three leading concerns – the absence of real debate among the candidates, the anticipated low voter turnout, and the spillover potential of this election (in April) on the building of coalitions for the legislative elections (in June). In this essay, I assess the significance of the final outcome of the presidential election on all three of these concerns – but especially on the spillover effects for the forthcoming legislative elections.
Impressions from the First Presidential Round on 10 April 2022
Family-related events in the States kept me occupied outside of France in March and April, although I continued to follow French media coverage, including the daily polling numbers, of the presidential election from afar. I even tuned into the main televised “non-debate” event that brought several (but not all twelve) of the official presidential candidates together one evening before the first round on 10 April and then again to the one real debate event between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen prior to the second round on 24 April.
The first event featured the four leading contenders – Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélanchon and Eric Zemmour – plus Yannick Jadot, Valerie Pécresse and Anne Hidalgo. I list them in that order by virtue of their apparent standing in the polls; the incumbent (Macron) facing his main challengers from the extreme right (Le Pen), the extreme left (Mélanchon) and the even more extreme right (Zemmour), followed by the “green” candidate (Jaot), the center right (Pécresse) and the center left (Hidalgo). There were, indeed, five other candidates who may well have complained about this as a violation of the French policy of equal time for official candidates, but I gather that the host network managed to skirt around the problem by using some kind of weighting of polls and historical records. In any case, it was clearly not a debate.
Each candidate was brought on and ushered back out separately, each from different staging areas, and each was then asked a different series of questions. So no debate, but at least a chance to compare demeanors and speaking styles. My personal assessments differed from polling results – I thought both Jadot and Pécresse handled themselves well, that both Zemmour and Le Pen were too extreme, that Melanchon was bombastic and not particular eloquent, and that Hidalgo was relatively weak but not offensive. And yes, that Macron was too argumentative but clearly the front-runner.
In the actual election, of course, both Jadot and Pécresse did rather poorly, as did Hidalgo. So much for my preferences! Zemmour had had a rather meteoric rise in the polls in late 2021 but steadily declined through the early months of 2022 and ultimately came out in fourth place, with only 7.1% of the vote nationally. Macron’s numbers jumped after the Russian invasion of Ukraine but settled back down again to a comfortable but low first-place position at 27.9%. The surprise turned out to be the strong closing surge of Mélanchon, moving up from around 12% in the earlier polling to 22% of the vote! That still gave him a third-place finish behind Le Pen’s 23.2%. But he then used the upward momentum to claim that he was the real winner. All he needed to do was to mobilize his voters to elect him and his party/coalition to a majority in the National Assembly – and voila, he could be the next Prime Minister! Media coverage was quite taken by this but also by the recognition that the combined “extremist” vote from left (Mélanchon plus the Communist candidate) and right (Le Pen plus Zemmour) was way ahead of Macron!
Impressions from the Second Presidential Round on 24 April 2022
Meanwhile, the immediate concern after the first round was the threat from the populism of the right in the form of a rising voter base for Le Pen and her National Rally party. I read lots of commentaries on how awful it would be if she won – with her record of friendliness with Putin, her hostility to the European Union and to pandemic controls, her anti-immigration stance, her promises to ban Moslem headscarves or to re-introduce the death penalty. Macron did agree to one long televised debate with Le Pen where he spent a lot of time criticizing these positions. Thankfully, he also highlighted his accomplishments (fighting the pandemic, stimulating investments in French industries, supporting a unified front against Putin) – touched on his plans for education and improving opportunities for youth and for reforming the pension system. She had softened her image throughout the campaign by emphasizing the rising cost of living, especially in the more rural areas of France, but she stumbled a bit when asked how she would finance the reforms she had proposed.
Polling after the debate gave Macron the win – 59% to 39%. But what really mattered was that the voters also gave him a decent margin in the second round – 58.5% to Le Pen’s 41.5%. In fact, even as the polling gave him the edge, it was clear that he was not well liked. And he was not particularly inspirational in the debate. He was once again argumentative and prone to interruptions, although Le Pen didn’t let him push her around either. But at times he was very pompous – at one point even sitting down with his arms folded and a smug look on his face. Someone must have gotten to him, though, because he appeared to loosen up after that. (It was, by the way, a very long debate – close to three hours non-stop, covering a whole range of issues in one go.. I certainly dropped off after a couple of hours, and I wonder how many watched the whole thing.)
One might have worried about this unpopularity of his. Of course, the second round vote margin was widely interpreted as a rejection of the extreme right rather than an embrace of Macron’s centrism. And he himself appeared to be contrite in his victory speech, promising to do more to listen to the people in his second term. But there is a lot of hand-wringing about the disintegration of center-left and center-right dialogue. And Le Pen’s steady rise over the years (even if she herself has announced she won’t run again). Then, there is the matter of record low voter turnout – still close to 72% of registered voters (well above the turnout for the municipal or regional elections in 2021 and 2022) but identified as the lowest turnout for a presidential election since 1969.
Looking to the Legislative Elections in June 2022
The real challenge, though, is the implications for the legislative elections in June. And here, it is useful to segue from the presidential to the legislative – from Round Three of this case study to Round Four. We are in the midst of the campaign for the National Assembly, the French lower house of parliament that is more like the House of Commons in the UK than the House of Representatives in the US. Although the French system has more presidential power than the US system, it still has a parliamentary format for its National Assembly. The Prime Minister and his or her cabinet are technically accountable to the National Assembly. Nonetheless, the French now hold their parliamentary elections shortly after the presidential in order to facilitate a parliamentary majority in line with the president. So here we are in the midst of that process, with lots of fluidity in the names and numbers.
In my previous commentaries about French elections, I have expressed concerns about the absence of a grass-roots momentum for Macron’s party, LREM. It certainly was an issue in 2020 in the municipal elections when there seemed to be no sign of LREM support – and again again last year when the LREM’s candidates did so poorly in the regional and departmental elections. It seemed, then, as though the traditional center-right Republicans and the traditional center-left Socialists were still in control of the grass roots. But was this perhaps a look at French politics with an American lens? After all, the abysmal showing of both Republicans and Socialists in the presidential elections seems to have been part of a downward trend for both parties. And the nipping at Le Pen”s heels of the Zemmour mystique on the right and the momentum of Mélanchon and his La France Insoumise (LFI) on the left, are apparently indicative of more than the rise of extremism generally. They also are, if one tries to look at this from a French lens, indicative of personality-driven populist movements.
Okay, fair enough. We’ve got the same issue in the States. Or at least we do now. Trump has become the Republican Party. The personality has displaced the power of the grass roots – or has transmogrified the grass roots of the Republican Party. We who are Democrats lament this disaster because of what it did to the country for four years and what it portends for the future. At least, there is no parallel personality cult among the Democrats – likable but gaffe-prone Biden notwithstanding. But enough of this. The personality function is quite different in the French world.
First, there was the Mélanchon gambit. Having announced at the end of the first presidential round on 10 April that he would be running for the Prime Ministership, Mélanchon has indeed pulled together a remarkable “new” coalition called the “L’union populaire, ecologique et sociale” with the acronym “NUPES”. Reputed to be the charismatic personality that I somehow did not see in him, he has managed to pull in the Greens (the EELV and others), the Communist Party (PCF) and even the Socialist Party – plus a few other odds and ends. The Socialists in particular have had to tone down their pro-European Union stance for participating in this coalition. This grand coalition has agreed to divide up the 577 constituencies for a commonly agreed candidate in almost every one. It seems, though, that some prominent Socialists are still hostile to this coalition, and some environmentalists are also wanting to run their own people here and there. The forecasts are that NUPES will probably be the largest opposition group to Macron but that their strength is not widespread enough to win a majority.
In spite of my misgivings about the absence of LREM strength at the grass roots in municipal and regional politics, the polling sources (of which there are quite a few different ones) are all showing that the coalition around Macron’s party will win a majority of the seats. It might not be as large a number as in 2017, but the prediction is widely shared that Macron’s supporters and allies will ultimately win – in the second round, (19 June) for sure, even if other candidates might come out ahead in the first round (12 June). The Macron network is also a new coalition. In fact, even the core party (LREM) has been renamed “Renaissance” – a ploy on French history of obvious significance. The coalition, however, is more cautiously called “Ensemble”, bringing together the old centrist party (Modem) and Edouard Philippe’s newer Horizons party with LREM – now called Renaissance. Their theme is “Avec vous”.
Ironically, the Ensemble coalition was announced at a meeting of four men sitting around a couple of drink tables – making it look like a rather sexist bunch of old men coming together to keep their hold on power. This was hardly the image of “rebirth” that Macron was attempting to convey. The media coverage of this negative image, however, was quickly taken over by President Macron’s announcing a new prime minister for his new administration – none other than a woman, Elizabeth Borne. Who proceeded to appoint a cabinet that was credibly balanced on gender, even if most of the old guard types (and mostly male, it seemed) were retained.
This has stirred up the typical French debate on how to call a female prime minister – with the progressives all suggesting “La Première Ministre” rather than “Mme Borne, Le Premier Ministre”. She is, after all, only the second woman to be appointed prime minister in all of French history. More on that later (along with my interest in what Macron/Borne did in appointing a controversial historian to be Minister of Education). But this hardly constitutes a significant campaign strategy for the legislative electioins.
Back on the legislative front, then, we see that both the National Rally (i.e. Marine Le Pen) and Reconquest (i.e. Eric Zemmour) are running their separate lists for the National Assembly – no prospects of a coalition on that front. Le Pen’s party is still expected to come in with the third largest group in the National Assembly – Renaissance first, then NUPES and then National Rally. The national polls seem to think that the gradual slide in the anticipated number of Renaissance winners (anywhere between 260 and 295, where 289 is needed for a majority in the Assembly) is due to growing support for the NUPES candidates, not necessarily the National Rally ones.
But our interest right now is at the very local level. I note that there is an incumbent LREM running in the constituency that includes Peymeinade, which is rather strange, since that town itself tends to vote extreme right. But then, I didn’t recognize any of the candidates as well known figures. We ourselves are in Grasse in another constituency, where the incumbent is a Republican, also not a name I recognized. Will the incumbents win? It seems odd that a Renaissance candidate would win in the district that includes Peymeinade since it seems that this same district had given more votes to Le Pen than to Macron in the Presidential run-off in April. The Grasse candidate, clearly associated with the well-known local Mayor Jerome Viaud, should be a shoe-in. We can expect that to be the result, in spite of what we see in a small enclave within the Grasse constituency.
This happens to be a small but old community – very visible from the main road into Grasse but very deeply nestled in a valley. It is a small “commune” with its own community hall. What I find fascinating about this community is that they have a signboard along the main road that regularly changes campaign posters – from Mélanchon (extreme left) to Zemmour (really extreme right) to Le Pen (extreme right) and back! It is pretty incredible to see how frequently the signs are changed – and deliberately damaged along the way. As though the community has three factions constantly competing with each other. I’ll be posting a poster collection separately, including for the officially placed campaign posters in nearby polling places. But in this particular location, the latest display shows Le Pen posters on top, with a set of posters for Zemmour below them and yet another set of Mélanchon posters underneath the Zemmour posters. A few days ago, it was the Mélanchon posters that had been on top. Go figure.
In conclusion, at this point (but maybe a bit premature on the legislative front), it seems that the French elections are witnessing a very widespread divergence in political views. There seems to be no avenue for facilitating an inclusive debate on the issues, a growing abstention rate among the voters and a worrisome patchwork of political alignments of extremes. The polls continue to favor Macron’s Ensemble but with declining enthusiasm for the centrist momentum of La République en Marche that had captured such an overwhelming majority of French voters in 2017.