Democracy in Jeopardy: Round Three of the French Case Study: the Presidential Elections 2022

French elections have been held at the municipal level in 2020 (what I have been calling 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 democratic cultures and systems of governance.  In my latest essay on France, written just as the presidential election was “officially” underway, my focus was on three leading concerns affecting how democratic governance may be in jeopardy, even in a country like France. These concerns were (1) the apparent absence of real debate among the candidates, (2) the anticipated low voter turnout, and (3) the potential of this election (held in April 2022) on broader coalition-building for effective governance in the longer term. In this essay, the presidential election has occurred, with the re-election of Emmanuel Macron for a second five-year term, and I take another look at each of these concerns and assess how they affected the final outcome of the presidential election. This will conclude with an appreciation for the imminent beginning of the “fourth round” – that is, the forthcoming legislative elections that are slated to occur within two months of the presidential results.

Impressions from the First Presidential Round on 10 April 2022

 In the course of the “official” campaign in March and early April, French media coverage steadily published daily polling numbers for each of the 12 official candidates who had qualified for the first round of the election.  But there was only one main televised “non-debate” event that brought several (but not all twelve) of the official presidential candidates together one evening before the first round. Otherwise, each of the candidates was left to mobilize voters with rallies and other media-raising efforts.  The leading contender, Emmanuel Macron, was clearly not interested in debating with any of the other candidates, whether in a group or more selectively.  Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February and because of President Macron’s highly visible diplomacy with Vladimir Putin, he could certainly justify being unavailable for debates.   And since the other candidates were mostly interested in unseating Macron, they, too, weren’t inclined to have a debate without him.

The the one “non-debate” event did include 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) was the obvious front-runner, while his main challengers were from the extreme right (Le Pen), the extreme left (Mélanchon) and the even more extreme right (Zemmour), followed by the “green” candidate (Jadot), 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 first round of 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 had jumped after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they settled back down again to a comfortable but low first-place position at 27.9%.  As expected, Marine Le Pen came in second and was therefore and once again in the run-off round against Macron, as she had been in 2017.  It reinforced the concern about the threat of populism from the extreme right in France,

The surprise, however, 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 number of “extremist” votes from left (Mélanchon plus the Communist candidate) and right (Le Pen plus Zemmour) was way ahead of the votes for anyone more moderate, whether it was Macron or any of the other more centrist candidates.!

Impressions from the Second Presidential Round on 24 April 2022

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. Polling forecasts showed her gaining a larger share of the likely vote in this 2022 second round than she had garnered in the 2017 second round. And this was an alarmingly upward trend for the extreme right.  The hand-wringing about a possible win for her included alarmism about 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.  Once again, the media focus seemed to be on the dangers of a Le Pen victory rather than on the positive appeal of Macron’s re-election.

Consistent with this dynamic, when Macron did agree to one long televised debate with Le Pen, he spent a lot of his time criticizing her positions on these issues.  Thankfully for those of us who were looking for him to identify real alternatives, he also highlighted the accomplishments of his first term – fighting the pandemic, stimulating investments in French industries, supporting a unified front against Putin. And he touched on his plans for reforming the educational system and improving opportunities for youth,  while also reforming the pension system.  It was, in fact, a very long debate – close to three hours non-stop, covering a whole range of issues in one go.

On the whole, Le Pen did come across in the debate (and throughout her campaign) with a softer image, emphasizing a set of reforms to address the plight of 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. I thought that was a significant stumble, but the media seemed to let this go as an example of Macron calling for more details than were necessary to get her points across.  Macron himself was typically argumentative and prone to interruptions, although Le Pen didn’t let him push her around either. And 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 clearly appeared to loosen up after that.)

Polling after the debate gave Macron the win – 59% to 39%.  The final vote in the second round gave him 58.5% to Le Pen’s 41.5%. Then there is the matter of record low voter turnout – still close to 72% of registered voters (and 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.

Even as the polling gave him the edge, it was clear that he was not well liked.  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 I can empathize with French commentators lamenting 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).

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 set the stage for a segue from the presidential to the legislative – from Round Three of this case study to Round Four.  The National Assembly is 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.  (The upper house or French Senate is itself similar to the British House of Lords and certainly has a more limited role in governance than the US Senate!)   Although the French system of governance has more presidential power than either the US or British system, it still has a parliamentary format for this National Assembly. The Prime Minister and his or her cabinet are technically accountable to the National Assembly. Furthermore, the French now hold their parliamentary elections shortly after the presidential in order to facilitate a parliamentary majority in line with the president.

The three concerns that I have been addressing – the apparent absence of substantive political debates, the declining voter turnout and weakness of long-term coalition-building – are equally evident in the legislative elections as they have been in the presidential level.  This series of commentaries will move next to these legislative elections in what I call “Round Four”.


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