Democracy in Jeopardy: The French Presidential Election in Progress

The European response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended the political scene across Europe – and around the world. While the Americans and President Joe Biden may take the credit for leading the global response to a deranged Vladimir Putin, the French President Emmanuel Macron has taken on a truly pivotal role in the search for a ceasefire and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As a result, the French presidential election has been dramatically shaken by the crisis. In this continuing series of commentaries on “Democracy in Jeopardy”, this election in France has taken on a far more significant role.

The French Presidential election is due to take place in two rounds of voting, first on Sunday, 10 April and, barring that no candidate receives a majority of votes, a second round on Sunday, 24 April.  On Friday, 4 March, President Emmanuel Macron finally announced  his candidacy for re-election to a second five-year term, and an official ballot listing all eligible candidates will be published by the French Constitutional Council on Monday, 7 March. At the moment, it appears that there will now be 11 official candidates on the ballot. (Note: It turned out that a twelfth candidate was able to meet the qualifying threshold at the very last minute. So there are now 12 candidates.) While “official” campaigning will not start until 28 March, we all know that the campaign is off and running. That is to say, it is on track, barring any major emergency that might lead everything to go off track.

Macron’s Announcement at Last

The tense situation in Ukraine that has thrown the whole world order into uncertainty may well evolve into something even worse than it is at the moment. And President Macron himself has already indicated in his letter to the French people announcing his candidacy that he will inevitably have to be less active in the campaign than he had anticipated “because of the context”. The phrase itself is an alarming one.  While his Prime Minister Jean Castex alerted the media by mid-day on Thursday, 3 March that the announcement was forthcoming, President Macron delivered the announcement in the form of a written letter, a “Lettre aux Français“, that was published in all of the major regional papers on Friday morning, 4 March. This was an unusual way to announce a candidacy but was conceivably chosen to emphasize the somber state of affairs in Europe.

In fact, President Macron had preceded this announcement with a fifteen-minute televised presidential speech on Wednesday evening, 2 March, in which he lamented how the crisis had “hit our democratic life and the election campaign” but also promised that “an important democratic debate for the country” would, nonetheless, take place. This was, by the way, a last opportunity for him to speak in a presidential voice about this dreadful crisis without confusing it with his candidacy.  The UN resolution condemning the Russian government’s actions had just been approved that same day, Wednesday, by a vote of 141 member-states to 5, with 35 abstentions. Given his central role as the main “go-between” for the democratic world to communicate with the man who has clearly “gone off the rails” in Russia, it was understandable that he chose to emphasize the united front in Europe and around the world to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine in this way, and  distinguishing it from the more politicized nature of the announcement of his candidacy.

We know that the continuing crisis won’t go away in the next few weeks (and could even get worse, as President Macron himself has predicted), and this does require a reshuffling of his time commitments for any campaigning and will definitely mean fewer big rallies. But to what extent might the Russian action actually affect the outcome of this presidential election?  Weren’t all the pollsters already predicting that Macron is expected to be the front-runner in the April 10th round and the winner in the second round on April 24th? What else is there to say?

Current Projections

After all, in spite of there being 11 (now 12) hopefuls seeking the presidency this time around, and in spite of the fact that French voters have a habit of voting “with the heart”, at least in the first round, the expectation is that the second round will simply be a repeat of the second round in 2017 when Macron handily defeated the Marine Le Pen by a margin of 66% to 34%. That was, then, a matter of more voters voting against Le Pen by voting for Macron in the second round, and this 2022 setting has not been expected to be any different. That is to say, enough French voters are attracted to the right-wing populism of someone like Marine Le Pen to form a substantial bloc in these presidential elections, but a majority of French voters, whether left, right or center, can be mobilized to vote for whomever makes it through the first round (usually the front-runner but nowhere near being a first-round winner), to prevent her from winning in the second round. This might not be a comforting way of dealing with extremism, but neither the left nor the moderate right has been able to get their act together in the current political environment in France to alter the dynamic.

The historic strength of social democratic parties (the left-of-center parties) in Europe may have been revitalized by the recent successes in other European countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Norway) but has not held its own in France itself – at least not at the national level. As I had noted in a separate commentary on the 2021 regional elections in France, I was intrigued to see the Socialist Party (i.e. the French version of a social democratic party) holding its own at the regional level – as it did in re-electing Anne Hidalgo as mayor of Paris and several other incumbents as regional governors.  Despite this evidently strong grass-roots base in places like Paris, here she is, the same solidly elected mayor now running as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president but well below 5% in the polling of French voters!

A stronger base of support on the left is going to a more extreme leftist, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, who had split off from the mainstream Socialist Party some years ago to form his own party, La France Insoumis (translated as France Unbowed). As another of these 11 (now 12) candidates, Mélanchon is the only one among all the left-wing candidates whose polling is in double digits.  A goodly number of the others on the left, though, are even further to the left than Mélanchon, including a fellow named Fabien Roussel, who is running as the French Communist Party’s candidate. But he, too, like Hidalgo, is well below 5% in the polls. (The 12th candidate who squeaked his way onto the ballot, Philippe Poutou by name, is yet another extreme leftist with very low polling numbers.)

But then there is the Green Party (EELV) candidate Yannick Jadot, who has been doing better in the polls, at around 5 or 6 %. The EELV appears to the left of center but seems to have its own younger network, quite distinct from the old-style social democrats. One should note, though, that there was at least one effort to try to unite the left, a People’s Primary that was held in January with the hope that all of these left-wing candidates would choose to compete for a unified left candidacy. The only individual who embraced this concept, Christiane Taubira, a former Socialist cabinet minister, was the only one who actively campaigned. But she subsequently failed to get the others to endorse her, never showed more than 2% in the polls, couldn’t meet the qualifying threshold to get on the official ballot, and ultimately withdrew from the race. (Her supporters, by the way, have shifted to Mélanchon, not Hidalgo – or Jadot or Roussel or Poutou, for that matter.)  And none of the other left-of-center candidates, of which there are a few others besides the ones already mentioned, has any prospect of becoming a serious challenger.

So it’s back to Macron versus the right.  Over the past five years, it is where French politics has been focused. Terrorism, immigration, and Islamic extremism have had their impact on the French electorate’s rightward shift – and on pulling Macron away from his own centrist ambitions.  Thus, it is to the right where three candidates are competing with each other to outpoll the others in a bid to face Macron in the second round. Eric Zemmour, a variation of Steve Bannon or Tucker Carlson is the scariest of the bunch, but his early spurt has subsided, and he seems to be out of the running. Meanwhile, the Republican Party itself, one of those continuing bulwarks of local and regional political strength (even more so than the Socialist Party), has struggled to come up with a competitive alternative. Their choice, Valérie Pecresse, is herself a regional governor for the region that includes Paris, but she has done poorly in polling so far. Early on, it seemed she might outpoll Le Pen, but that is no longer showing to be the case. So it seems that we will simply have a repeat of 2017, with a forecast of a 58% to 42% victory by Macron over Le Pen in the second round. Again, what else is there to say?

The Need for a Free and Open Debate

Well, I do have three things to say about it myself. First, of course, is that France is a democracy that has been threatened both domestically and now internationally. Just because there is a popular momentum to ensure a continuation of President Macron’s leading role in the free world doesn’t mean that he can drop all of his campaign activities. In fact, he himself has promised an important democratic debate for the country, and this is now more important then ever “because of the context”, as he has put it. So yes, let’s have a real debate, even if it means a debate involving 11 (yes, now 12) different presidential candidates!

The substance of that debate may have changed to include more of the international context, to be sure. But that does make it all the more important. As  previously noted, the French political climate has veered to the right, with challenges coming from a populist and nationalist form of right-wing politics that has strong global undercurrents. I have been especially worried about the way this has affected Macron’s policies on secularism in France, with a growing anti-Moslem tone to them as well as a hostility to identifying cultural and racial differences generally. But now, there is also the element of pro-Russian and pro-Putin relationships involving the presidential candidates of the extreme right – both the RN’s  Marine Le Pen’ and the inflammatory Eric Zemmour at the head of his newly concocted “Réconquète” party.  And they are both scurrying to distance themselves from these well-known relationships!

Of course, French relations with the Russians are not just on the extreme right. President Macron himself tried to establish a friendly rapport with Putin (as he did, by the way, with Donald Trump early on, too) but has clearly managed that relationship to segue into a genuine effort to promote a de-escalation of Putin’s confrontationalism against Ukraine – and now to encourage a ceasefire while also emphasizing his solid alignment with the united Western front against Russian aggression. It has been serendipitous for Macron, of course, that France is holding the presidency of the European Union’s Council in a six-month rotation. He thus speaks both for France and for the entire European Union and even connecting the long-standing French interest in strengthening Europe militarily to this latest crisis. In that broader context, then, it is interesting to note that President Macron has spoken 11 times with Putin this year, each conversation reflecting genuine coordination by Macron with NATO, the EU and the US.

The debate, if it happens,, will also draw in many if not all of the other 11 (12) presidential candidates.  One would be especially interested in seeing how the Republican candidate Valérie Pecresse, could recover some credibility with a direct debating exposure with Macron.  A Macron/Pecresse run-off in the second round was seen by many as being far less threatening for the future of democracy than a Macron/Le Pen run-off, even if it was also expected to be the most “rational” competition of center versus center-right conservatism of the more traditional sort. Pécresse is playing her part, emphasizing how President Macron has not carried through on the reforms to the French economy that he had promised back in 2017 and that she herself would have  the courage to bring about. But her weak public speaking appearances and a rather fractured Republican leadership aren’t helping her. Nor is the huge jump in the polls for Macron as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.

Voter Turnout

In any case, the momentum does seem to be for a Macron/Le Pen run-off. And my second concern is that this may have the opposite effect on voter turnout than has been the case in previous one-on-one electoral battles involving a Le Pen. Way back in 2006, it was Jacque Chirac against the original Le Pen, where the high voter turnout was inspired by a determination to defeat Le Pen. And in 2017, when Macron was first elected, there was also a high voter turnout enabling him to trounce the second Le Pen by a wide margin. Will this continue? Will we see a heightened voter turnout, perhaps reinforced by patriotism in crisis, or will there be a downward pattern in voter turnout as evidenced in the recent local and regional elections?

I don’t have a sense yet for how this will play out, but I am intrigued that Macron himself did specifically refer to the importance of citizenship in his letter to the French people.  He touched on his vision of a unified France, of a common French culture even with all its localized distinctions. This is where the contrast between the “wokeism” of the US and the “laicité” of the French is most striking. But it is from this perspective that Macron then states, “We will encourage the engagement (of citizenship) with a simple ambition: to train not just the individuals and the consumers, but citizens.” And here he added: “Make republicans!”  And reinforcing this mentality, I note that the televised media in France have worked up a collaboration to promote voter turnout in the presidential election – recognizing that the foundation of citizenship is voting. We can hope that the hammering away at citizenship and voting will stimulate a heightened voter turnout. One can at least hope!

National Assembly Elections

A third concern of mine has to do with the spillover potential from the presidential election to the elections for the National Assembly. It so happens that this has become the pattern for the French – a presidential election followed shortly thereafter with these parliamentary elections. Back in 2017, Macron was guaranteed an overwhelming majority in the Assembly following his surprise victory in 2017 – all part of the spurt in the momentum for a new and transformative center. But this transformative center hasn’t really happened. As noted in my earlier essays on both the municipal elections in 2020 and the regional elections in 2021, Macron’s LREM just couldn’t pull off any wins. They were missing a local grass roots sort of base.  And one has to wonder about this 2022 situation, where the National Assembly elections are scheduled for June, shortly after the April results. Assuming Macron wins in April, where will he and his movement for the future be if there is no fresh momentum or, alternatively, no grass roots taking hold on which to build?

The implications for Macron may well require governing with an opposition, although it is hard these days to predict what that opposition would look like. Would it be predominantly Republican? Socialist? Something else? Or could he pull off another spillover of momentum? Or even find some signs of grass roots finally taking hold?

There do seem to be two parallel tracks of new political configurations that could help Macron and his LREM. One is the game being played by his former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe – he did, after all, launch a new party of his own, called Horizons. This track envisions Philippe  building on his own popularity and left-of-center inclinations that could sort of align with Macron for this election but set the stage for his own candidacy five years from now. The other track, though, is a game that I see being played out here in the PACA region. Just last week, the new regional governor, Reynaud Muselier, the fellow who pulled off a coalition of Republicans with LREM candidates for a merged regional slate that won in 2021, announced a new “coalition”. This one, drawing on some 260 PACA regional and local dignitaries, is a new pro-Macron coalition.

Timing for this second track, by the way, is potentially revealing. The Macron campaign team had in fact planned the first pro-Macron presidential rally in this campaign to be held in Marseille, the main city for PACA, immediately after Macron’s announcement. Under the circumstances of the ongoing Putin mess, this rally was cancelled but was then subsequently (tentatively) rescheduled for 11 March. I do think this is significant, not only for the presidential election but also for the parliamentary elections. This is the one region where the LREM was able to maneuver an alignment with old-style Republicans to be part of a winning regional ticket in 2021. (A key element of the alignment is actually based in Nice, where the mayor Christian Estrosi was among the first to announce his support for Macron this time around. This makes it especially interesting for me personally.)  Elsewhere, though, the LREM was a mess in the regional elections.

So here we are. We need an important democratic debate – for the country but also for the world. The French presidential election gives us all the chance to be hopeful about the future of democracy. The mobilization of a common democratic front against authoritarianism can be played out right here. But it is also an important bellwether for voter turnout and for building coalitions that can withstand the threats to democracy that we have all been experiencing. On all three of these concerns – reinforcing democratic debate, ensuring high voter participation and building solid and governable coalitions – the French election cycle is important to watch

Note: The “qualifying threshold” for making it onto the presidential ballot in France is explained in my earlier commentary on the French presidential elections – a unique nominating process among local, departmental and regional elected officials known as “parrainage”, a form of sponsorship with a threshold of 500 “parrains” (or “godfathers”) to become an official candidate.

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