The French Presidential Elections explained: round two.

Yesterday (Sunday 24 April), the French took to the polls to – as they ever so eloquently put it – choose between the plague and cholera. In perhaps one of the most divisive elections since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Emmanuel Macron is the first governing president of the Fifth Republic to be re-elected – which is a significant achievement. He is by no means the first re-elected president – both François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac served two terms, but in these cases, France experienced a phenomenon known as cohabitation in the run-up to the elections. 


As explained in my article on the first round, this is when the opposition has a parliamentary majority due to the seven-year term allowing for mid-term elections. This allowed Mitterrand and Chirac to craft positive images for themselves and win a second term. Macron, in winning a second mandate whilst also having a parliamentary majority, is the first president to win the trust of the people, after five years, once again. 


Despite having to combat shouts of ‘president of the rich,’ after removing the wealth tax, the yellow vest movement of 2018-19, and a controversial vaccine pass, there are still many French citizens who deem him to have been a satisfactory president. However, despite Macron’s victory, the score of his opponent – extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen – is evidence of a France divided. 


Le Pen was far more composed and logical than she was five years ago.

Let’s rewind five years, to the last election. Macron, at the time an ambitious 39-year-old, announced that he would be a centrist. This, in effect, destroyed the traditional Socialist Party on the Left and the Republicans on the Right, and forced the opposition to the extremes of Left and Right. He believed they would be of minimal threat there. Technically, he was right. 


However, this election has proven that, now, these are the only places to go if you are anti-Macron. Marine Le Pen won 41.46% of the vote – a 7.56% increase on her last score, and the highest score ever for the far right. On the extreme left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon won almost 22% of the vote in the first round – and of course, who can forget newcomer and far-right populist Eric Zemmour’s – or as the press has called him, the French Trump – 7%, easily beating out Republicans’ Valérie Pécresse and Socialist Anne Hidalgo?


Those who watched the traditional presidential debate last Wednesday may well say that Macron truly got the better of Le Pen. But she was also far more composed and logical than she was five years ago, having worked hard to present herself, and the far-right, as more democratic. Her score certainly reflects that. As far as Mélenchon is concerned, 43% of his voters abstained according to market research and consulting firm IPSOS – the largest group out of the 28% of abstainers, the highest since 1969 (31.3%). So not only are the extremes on the rise, but it’s clear that Macron’s victory isn’t exactly genuine. 


This is why experts and laypeople alike have their eyes peeled for the ‘third round’ – that is, the legislative elections on 12 and 19 June. Mélenchon has already made calls for the people to choose him as Prime Minister, essentially taking us back to the days of cohabitation and preventing Macron from carrying out his programme. 


In his victory speech, Macron recognised the profound division France currently faces.

With the Socialists announcing that they are open to talks with him, the union of the Left that was absent in the first round – and which some argue cost Mélenchon a ticket to the second round – might well be a possibility. The Right is not one to be left behind – Zemmour has already – and rather publicly – extended a hand to Marine Le Pen, arguing that only a ‘National Union’ will ensure a victory at the legislatives. Le Pen has not yet accepted – and many doubt that she will, considering she said that he would not get a seat in her government if she was elected president. Having said that, there is still over a month to go, so we will have to see – it may be the case that her niece, Marion Maréchal, who is also one of the vice-presidents of Zemmour’s party may have some sway. Again, people have their doubts. 


So yes, cohabitation, which hasn’t been seen since 2002 (having started in 1995), could make a comeback. Then again, it might not. In his victory speech, Macron recognised the profound division France currently faces. Labelling himself as ‘the president of all’, he pledged to address the silence of the abstainers, as well as the anger and disagreement of those who voted for Le Pen. To many, this may sound promising. 


However, Macron has made promises before and fallen short. Alongside his centrist position, he pledged in 2017 to be a ‘Jupiterian president’, one who would transcend politics and act as an arbitrator – nothing more, nothing less. However, this promise of a neutral, observant presidency quickly gave way to a rather talkative presidency that wasn’t always the politest –the ‘Salut Manu’ incident comes to mind, where he reprimands a teenager for being discourteous to the ‘President of the Republic’, or the time where he told a man struggling with unemployment that he would ‘cross the road and find him a job’. 


This election has been full of firsts – be that Macron’s victory, the rematch between him and Le Pen (the first since 1981), or the highest abstention rate since 1969.

His promise of healing and reconciliation might well fall short. Having said that, with five years of experience in the role – and with Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, it’s been a bumpy ride, and certainly one he didn’t expect. Now is perhaps the best time for him to make these repairs. 


Regardless, it will depend on what happens with the legislative elections. Going back to the ISPOS polls, data taken quickly after Macron’s victory shows that 68% of people are hoping for cohabitation – and many of these are likely to be melénchonnistes – that is, those who voted for Mélenchon in the first round. Mélenchon may have a significant chance. If he won, it would make for a rather interesting five years considering he has often condemned the Fifth Republic as fostering ‘a monarchical presidency’. Macron is likely to get a majority – albeit a slim one – and Mélenchon is vehemently against Le Pen – so it’s unlikely that we’ll see any united opposition.


Despite the uncertainty that has painted this election,  one thing that is certain is that this election has been full of firsts – be that Macron’s victory, the rematch between him and Le Pen (the first since 1981), or the highest abstention rate since 1969. And it may well turn out to be the first cohabitation since 2002. 



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