By Rachel Marsden
When French voters go to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president, will the outcome be the same as the 2017 election? Five years ago, the same duel between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen ended with a clear result: Macron won with 66 percent of the votes against Le Pen with 34 percent. The everlasting phenomenon of the French “Republican Front” has struck again. In other words, all the other first-round voters voted against Le Pen and not for Macron. Older French voters in particular have an innate fear of the “extreme right” and reflexively vote against them. But why is this the case?
It all started when the predecessor party to Le Pen’s Rassemblement National – the Front National led by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen – benefited from former socialist French President François Mitterrand’s openness to the turnout of smaller parties in the 1985 general election and eventually won 35 seats won in the National Assembly.
Mitterrand has long been accused of opening the corridors of power to the extreme right in order to permanently split the right-wing establishment and secure long-term dominance for his conventional left-wing Socialist Party.
But a lot has changed since then. Both the conventional right and the left have completely imploded. After failing to secure the five percent minimum required for government reimbursement of campaign expenses in the first round of this year’s elections, conventional right-wing Republican Party candidate Valérie Pécresse is now calling on the French public to donate to avoid it that she has to make expenses of seven million euros (of which five million euros from her own pocket). On the traditional left, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s Socialist Party received just 1.7 percent of the vote.
Today, Macron has cobbled together conventional figures from right and left and successfully marketed them as centrist and pragmatic defenders of the status quo of the French and European establishment. Not that the French are thrilled with his performance. Polls show Macron’s popularity is consistently around 40 percent. Macron’s popularity is highest among retirees and lowest among young people aged 25 to 34, as well as non-executive workers, according to an Odoxa poll.
This should come as no surprise as the numbers reflect the impact of the two biggest crises Macron has faced in his first five-year term: the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. Retirees are the least affected – and arguably the biggest beneficiaries – by Macron’s rigorous pandemic management and vaccination rules, which, when flouted, have led to the loss of working-class jobs. The elderly population is also unaffected by Macron’s promise to raise the retirement age to 65. They tend to be risk-averse and vulnerable to the suggestion, often voiced by analysts in the French press, that voting for Le Pen could bring political instability and unpredictable consequences for both France and Europe. Meanwhile, younger, working people with families are feeling the fallout from Macron’s policies, which have helped anger Russia over its military offensive in Ukraine, without a plan to deal with the backlash on the French and EU economies from sanctions against Russia present.
Younger French and working-class voters are therefore more willing to risk something new given the apparent failure of Macron to ease the chaos over the past five years.
Inflation is by far the most important issue for them, according to a Democracy Institute poll of French voters, with more respondents disapproving of Macron’s handling of the Ukraine crisis that has contributed to it, and more than half claiming that the Macron advocated European Union sanctions on Russia hurting France more than Russia itself. Only 20 percent of respondents see Russia as “the biggest threat to France” (ahead of China and terrorism), and more French voters agree with Le Pen’s position that France should resign from the integrated NATO command.
Even if older voters overwhelmingly support Macron, Le Pen’s bohemian and non-establishment stance still seduces French voters who are unenthusiastic about Macron’s leadership style, particularly on the economic front.
Scandals also play a role in the final days of the election campaign. According to a report by the French Senate, Macron has sought to justify the French government’s increased use of global “big consulting” firms under his leadership, which have swallowed hundreds of millions of euros in taxpayers’ money. These facilitators of globalism advised and represented the French government on the COVID-19 vaccines simultaneously large technology and pharmaceutical companies that produce vaccines. It is not difficult to imagine how such conflicts of interest can lead to government mandates that favor special interests over science to the detriment of democracy and civil liberties.
But Le Pen also faces an uncomfortable revelation ahead of the final round. The European Union’s anti-fraud agency has just accused her of misusing public funds during her time as a Member of the European Parliament. This is the culmination of a years-long investigation that has raised suspicions of political motives behind the timing of the announcement.
Le Pen is known for opposing the supranational, top-down EU government – as opposed to Macron’s working with her – and has consistently argued that France needs to regain more independence and sovereignty. Your radical left-wing opponent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the party La France insoumise (“Indomitable France”), takes a position on the EU similar to that of Le Pen. And if all his voters support Le Pen in a major anti- establishment coalition to defeat Macron would trigger a political earthquake. Both candidates have insisted on less blind cooperation with the EU, to the detriment of French citizens, while Macron has spent the past five years behaving like its biggest supporter, while refusing to put his citizens’ interests before the public impact of US military and economic ambitions.
Mélenchon and Le Pen also agree that they have less to obey Washington. Mélenchon advocates a socialist safety net, while Le Pen gradually moves towards laissez-faire policies that achieve similar results with less state intervention. For example, while Macron advocates the government issuing “cheques” to offset rising energy and food prices, Le Pen has promised to reduce VAT on these products to keep more money in consumers’ pockets.
Despite the similarities in their goals, Mélenchon has called on his supporters not to cast a single vote for Le Pen in the second round. He has long argued that Le Pen — who opposes Macron’s COVID-19 mandates and has opposed Macron’s position on arming neo-Nazis in Ukraine — must be fought at all costs. According to a new BVA poll, 30 percent of the votes from Mélenchon’s narrow third place to Le Pen’s qualification for the second round (22 percent vs. 23 percent) will go to Macron, compared to just 18 percent for Le Pen. An estimated 52 percent of Mélenchon -Voters plan to abstain or cast an invalid vote in the final round.
And it is precisely this abstention, empty votes or votes not cast that could be decisive in this election. According to the weighted average of all surveys available to date Financial Times Macron and Le Pen are only seven percent apart ahead of Sunday’s vote. So it looks like the outcome may ultimately depend on voter motivation. Despite their disappointment with the country’s overall direction, will French people over 65 who appreciate Macron’s conventional approach be more motivated to vote in order to preserve the status quo at all costs? Or will younger, working-class voters be mobilized to seize the right to try something new – the only chance they will have in the next five years?
Translated from English.
Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and presenter of independently produced talk shows in French and English.
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