Sunday 10 April, French voters took to the polls as part of the first step in deciding the next President of the French Fifth Republic – the current form of political organisation in France. Outgoing president and centrist Emmanuel Macron, and far-right politician Marine Le Pen will now battle it out on 24 April to decide the next Chef de l’État (Head of State).
Presidential elections are held in accord with the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, established in 1958 by General Charles de Gaulle. Initially, de Gaulle, the first President of the Republic, was chosen by an electoral college, as is the case in America. However, after a referendum in 1962, the system changed so that the president would be directly elected by universal suffrage. Therefore, instead of voting for the Prime Minister – that is, the Head of Government – the French vote for their Head of State. It’s like if we, in the UK, started voting for the Queen. The Prime Minister is instead chosen by the President, who also leads cabinet meetings, and as such, the Head of State often also becomes the de facto Head of Government.
Prior to any voting, candidates must persuade 500 elected officials of the worthiness of their bid for the presidency
The President behaves even more like a Head of Government following a constitutional reform in 2000 limited the presidential term to five years. Before, it was seven, and this meant that the presidential and the parliamentary elections did not always coincide, allowing for a phenomenon known as cohabitation, in which a ruling president must choose his Prime Minister from an opposition party. This happened on three occasions – 1986-1988, 1993-1995, and 1997-2002. This is much less likely to happen after the 2000 reform, because presidential elections precede parliamentary elections by a few months – but it’s not impossible.
As I’ve mentioned, there are two rounds to these elections. However, prior to any voting, candidates must persuade 500 elected officials of the worthiness of their bid for the presidency and have them sign for it. These are officially referred to as présentations, but people generally refer to them as parrainages – literally ‘Godfatherings’ or sponsorships. Essentially, this is a step to limit the number of candidates at the ballot box and to stop more eccentric candidates – imagine if there was a French equivalent of Lord Buckethead.
This year, 12 candidates got the required parrainages. They were: Nathalie Arthaud from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle); Nicolas Dupont-Aignan from Debout la France (Arise France); Anne Hidalgo from the Socialist Party; Yannick Jadot from the Green Party; Jean Lassalle from Résistons! (Let’s Resist!); Jean-Luc Mélenchon from La France Insoumise (France Unbowed); Fabien Roussel from the French Communist Party; Eric Zemmour from Reconquête (Reconquer); Phillipe Poutou from the New Anticapitalist Party; Valérie Pécresse from the Republicans; of course, Marine Le Pen from Rassemblement National (National Rally), formerly known as the National Front; and Emmanuel Macron from La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move). The frontrunners were Macron, Le Pen, Mélenchon, Zemmour, Pécresse, and Hidalgo.
The campaign was an interesting one – particularly because, as Zemmour himself said during a television appearance, it seemed at times like he and Mélenchon were the only ones campaigning effectively. Mélenchon is known for being an excellent campaigner, drawing attention in 2017 for his use of holograms to appear in multiple cities at once. He did not disappoint this year, using the same technique to appear in 12 cities at the same time. He is also a social media wizard, commanding strong numbers on YouTube and TikTok in particular – impressive given that he is now 70.
However, the real surprise was that Macron announced his candidacy so late
Zemmour’s campaign was launched on the back of his book tour, which sold over 80,000 copies in the first four days. He also made extensive use of social media and was able to rope in another member of the Le Pen family, Marion Maréchal (Marine Le Pen’s niece), to further support his campaign as a far-right candidate. However, Marine Le Pen also led a strong campaign, despite the threat of newcomer Zemmour. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is known for his anti-Semitic and xenophobic comments, and since taking over the party in 2011, she has sought to de-demonise the party, making it more mainstream, even though she still maintains some rather conservative views – particularly on immigration and Islamist terrorism. The fact she made it into the second round proves her success here.
However, the real surprise was that Macron announced his candidacy so late. As outgoing president, this can be somewhat expected, particularly given the situation in Ukraine and his role as a ‘mediator’ (having met early on with Putin). Nevertheless, he has led a rather vague campaign – though he has made some interesting, if not unexpected, comments on TV licenses and retirement ages.
Speaking of Ukraine, the Russian invasion substantially shifted the tone of the election. There was even a programme on TF1 (as significant a channel as BBC 1 in this country) where eight out of 12 candidates – including the six frontrunners mentioned above – presented their views on it. The escalating conflict forced all candidates to clarify their position, and they all condemned it and unanimously agreed against French military intervention. However, they vary on who is responsible, whether or not France should send arms, and some have shied away from attacking Putin – namely Mélenchon, Le Pen (who received a loan from Russia during the 2017 campaign), and Zemmour.
Macron and Le Pen will enter the first rematch tour since 1981, and significantly, both recieved higher scores than they obtained in 2017
As far as the pandemic was concerned, even though it was a key issue for many voters, it was not very present in the speeches of many candidates – most simply criticised Macron’s handling of the pandemic and the introduction of a vaccine pass in January. Other key campaign issues included the cost-of-living crisis, which Le Pen focused on heavily, security, immigration, and the environment – although fewer candidates tackled the latter issue.
So, what happened? Abstention was rather high at 26%, the highest it has been since 2002 – but that’s hardly surprising given some of the other results. For years, the mainstream parties in France were the Socialists and the Republicans – with the latter being one of the founding parties of the Fifth Republic – albeit under a different name. Yet the candidates for these parties, Anne Hidalgo and Valérie Pécresse, failed to get over 5% of the vote – in fact, Zemmour ranked just ahead of Pécresse and Hidalgo was close to last place with only 2% of the vote. The political landscape in France has effectively been rewritten – with the three axes of the next five years now the centre, the far right, and the radical left (Mélenchon was only two points behind Le Pen).
Macron and Le Pen will enter the first rematch tour since 1981, and significantly, both received higher scores than they obtained in 2017 – which for Macron is already interesting, as an outgoing president usually gets worse scores, but even more so for Le Pen, especially as she will now most likely get Zemmour’s 7%. Having said that, many unsuccessful candidates have already expressed their support for Macron – meaning that whilst he is likely to win, it will be very tight.
What’s next? The second round will take place on 24 April, giving Macron plenty of opportunities to make up for lost time – many of his supporters say the real campaign starts now. On 20 April, Le Pen and Macron will take part – that is, if neither of them refuses – in the traditional presidential debate, before a complete media blackout from 22-24 April.
However, like I said, it will be tight. It is expected that key issues will be the environment – given neither candidate has said much on this – questions of security and immigration, and the cost-of-living crisis amongst others. What will be interesting will be the parliamentary elections, on 12 and 19 June – also a two-round system. Whilst it’s likely that the winner of the second round will achieve a parliamentary majority given the proximity to the presidential elections, it will be interesting to see how many seats the mainstream right and left will gain given this electoral disaster, as well as whether Mélenchon can increase on his party’s meagre 17 seats. All in all, it’s been an interesting campaign – and it’s not about to get any easier.