French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen have predictably made it to the decisive second round of the presidential elections in France, to be held on April 24. A few elements of surprise in the first round of voting included the high abstention rate of nearly 27%, Macron’s margin of victory at five points, and, crucially, the fact that cost of living proved to be the most decisive issue.
The elections demonstrate that the French political landscape has shifted irreversibly to the Right – a global phenomenon not just confined to France. The two principal political parties that regularly won presidential elections until a young Macron burst onto the scene in 2017 have been decimated. The Centre-Right Republican party led by Valerie Pecresse polled a miserable 5%. And, the less said about the Socialist Party led by Anne Hidalgo, who got around 2%, the better. It is also worth recalling that anti-incumbency plays an important role in French presidential elections. In recent times, no French president has succeeded in getting re-elected. The last incumbent to win was Jacques Chirac who in 2002 beat his far-right rival Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father).
In 2017, there was a run-off between Macron and Le Pen in the second round, which the former won handsomely. The run-off on April 24 may thus seem like a repeat of the last elections in 2017. But there are some fundamental differences. Macron was young and a breath of fresh air in 2017. He may still be young at 44, but anti-incumbency may come into play now. A month ago, Macron was cruising to what seemed like a definite victory. But in the last two weeks, Le Pen played her cards smartly by focusing on the “cost of living” issue. Macron, partly because of the Ukrainian crisis, was not able to campaign as much as he would have liked. He may have also made a tactical mistake by announcing that he was open to increasing the retirement age to 65, something that did not go down well with the French electorate.
Most importantly, Le Pen significantly softened her image compared to the last time. She was also helped by another far-Right contender, Eric Zemmour, taking far more extreme positions and the fact that the French are no longer hesitant to openly say that there are too many immigrants in their country.
Many feel that immigrants abuse the country’s famed social security system with its generous welfare benefits. Not all French people may speak out as loudly against the burqa in public spaces as Le Pen does, but many appear to agree with her in private. Le Pen may not speak explicitly about restricting immigration only to Europeans, but essentially, when she talks of France for the French, she is talking about reclaiming the country on the basis of religion, culture and language.
It is said that the French vote with their hearts in the first round and with their heads in the second. Le Pen may have softened her image considerably, but her deeply held views on immigration, religion and identity arguably run counter to the stated French ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Oddly enough, her party’s links with a Russian bank which appears to have lent her money and her own admiration for Vladimir Putin did not seem to have hurt her much. On the other hand, Macron’s party links with the American consultancy McKinsey, and that he is perceived as being distant and far removed from the common man, may prove an electoral liability.
More than anywhere else, the European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels must be tracking these developments with some concern. Should Le Pen win, she has hinted at a fundamental reassessment of France’s relations with the EU. While she no longer talks of “Frexit” (France leaving EU), she does talk of French laws trumping EU laws. She also talks of France exiting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). To that extent, transatlantic ties are also at stake in these elections.
There is a good two-week window between now and the decisive round of elections on April 24. One thing to watch out for will be the presidential televised debate scheduled on April 20. A lot of the abstainers and undecideds could potentially make up their minds then.
In the context of how close this presidential race has become, the importance of the televised debate cannot be over-emphasised. Macron may well end up winning but he has his job cut out for him.
Mohan Kumar is a former Indian ambassador to France
The views expressed are personal