April 10, 2022 is already a day that will be remembered in French political life. It consecrates in western Europe the inevitable rise of populism with the impressive scores of Marine Le Pen (around 24%) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (around 20%). These 2 candidates landed respectively in 2nd and 3rd position at the end of this first round of the French presidential elections. Moreover, with nearly 28,3% of the vote, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, can achieve the rare result of being in a position to be re-elected, 20 years after Jacques Chirac achieved it.
The National Populist Momentum
One of the major lessons of this first round is the confirmation of the rise of populism in Europe recently observed with the electoral victory of Victor Orban in Hungary. European public opinion is particularly suspicious of their decision-makers, whether in the public or private sector. In the case of France, the close relations between the consulting firm McKinsey and Emmanuel Macron, and in particular their alleged collusion, have strongly fed the populist narrative. The image of multinationals, in particular American ones, is particularly negative in France: they are seen as interfering with French national interests and sovereignty. In addition, the question of purchasing power has become central to the political debate and in particular the threat of poverty among the middle and working classes. Le Pen and Mélenchon perfectly succeeded in responding to it with their social proposals for the redistribution of wealth.
Beyond the anti-elite narrative shared by Le Pen and Mélenchon, the question of immigration, the identity and sovereignty of France, is now inevitable. This is a trend in the whole of western Europe which can be explained by recent migration waves and also the return of high intensity warfare in Ukraine. Nationalist sentiment among Europeans is significant and suggests a radicalization of right-wing politicians.
This is what Marine Le Pen embodies in France, a lasting trend that is both strongly populist and openly anti-immigration.
Macron / Le Pen Round 2
As in 2017, French people will have to choose between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on 24 April. However, the confrontation will be totally different as Macron is increasingly seen as the president of the rich and those who benefit from globalization against Le Pen, the candidate of the people.
Still, Macron improved his first-round score compared to 2017 (according to Ifop’s estimate, 28.3% in 2022 vs 24% of the vote and 8.6 million votes in 2017). If the figures are confirmed, this would mean that the head of state obtained around 10 million votes this year, an increase of more than 1 million votes.
This progression is deceptive if we look at the projections for the second round which will take place in 2 weeks. According to various polls (Ifop and Opinionway), outgoing President Macron would win in the second round against Marine Le Pen, who came second, with a score of between 54% and 51% against 46%-49% for the National Rally candidate, according to the first polls carried out on Sunday after the first round. It confirms the split between the successful and relatively aging elites of the large urban areas versus the more modest populations who live in the intermediate zones between the large agglomerations and the rural world.
Although the duel is more disputed than in 2017, Marine Le Pen has major weaknesses. On the one hand, she will have to explain the 8 million euros she owes to a Russian bank close to the Kremlin. Public opinion in France was particularly shocked by the war in Ukraine unleashed by Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen seems not to have sufficient votes to beat Macron, because Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called for his supporters to vote against her.
Moreover, the worsening of the situation in Ukraine and the risk of regionalization of the war will strengthen the re-election of Emmanuel Macron. This is explained by the reluctance of voters to change presidents in the midst of a geopolitical crisis. Macron will try to show his closeness to Ukrainian President Zelensky while denouncing Marine Le Pen’s closeness to Putin.
Macron is already on the campaign trail ahead of the second round in two weeks. In the meantime Brussels and a range of European national capitals are holding their breath to see who will be chairing meetings of the 27 governments under the Presidency of the EU, currently held by France.
In conclusion, the re-election of Emmanuel Macron is likely. But this election shows that Europeans and in particular the French are very fragmented between a globalized elite and an increasingly poor and young population whose middle class continues to shrink.