France's far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) leader, Marine Le Pen candidate for the 2022 French presidential election greets her supporters as she arrives to deliver a speech during her electoral campaign meeting on April 07, 2022 in Perpignan, France. Picture Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images

Le Pen surging as France prepares to go to the polls

France’s establishment parties are nowhere in Sunday’s election 

Artillery Row

The first round of the French elections are taking place on Sunday, with the candidates coming first and second facing off in the second round, on 24 April. They have become a very close race. Until mid-March, French President Emmanuel Macron seemed virtually certain to make it to the second round and beat any opponent. That is no longer the case. 

Even if there is little doubt that Macron will finish first in the first round, polls now suggest that right wing populist candidate Marine Le Pen is poised to make it to the second round, where polling averages suggest she may get around 48 per cent of the vote, with Macron merely securing 52 per cent. The odd — foreign — poll has even put Le Pen ahead, or at 49 per cent. In other words, we are very much in Brexit territory here. 

Everything hangs on which groups stay home on election day. 

During the last few weeks, there was a rise in support for both Le Pen and left wing populist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but with the latter polling a solid five per cent points under Le Pen. Meanwhile, both Macron and Le Pen’s right wing populist contender, Eric Zemmour, has seen his initial popularity dwindle. Despite a number of big rallies and a successful fundraising campaign, Zemmour has likely lost steam due to his uncritical stance towards Russian President Putin and his initial reluctance to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms — in contrast to Le Pen — a position he has subsequently reversed. 

French politics has continued to be defined by its extremes in this election, with  the campaign of the official candidate of the centre-right Les Républicains, Valérie Pécresse, ending in disaster, as she is now polling under ten per cent, after even having failed to obtain the endorsement of former French President and fellow party member Nicolas Sarkozy. 

In a sign of the altered electoral landscape, it is especially striking that she has chosen not to give any voting instructions to her supporters for the second round, suggesting that Macron shouldn’t count on her support. It’s another indication that the previous election’s decisive refusal of Le Pen is unlikely to be repeated, even if Macron is able to secure victory. 

Turnout will be crucial

Assuming, as seems likely,  that Macron and Le Pen face off in the second round, turnout will be key. Macron is currently pandering to the left, even borrowing the slogan “Our lives are worth more than their profits” from hard-left activists in a bid to sway left wing voters. 

It should not be overlooked that Le Pen is also pursuing a left wing economic agenda — unlike Zemmour, who has pledged to cut taxes and regulations — and that 18 per cent of voters backing Mélenchon for the first round plan to vote for Le Pen in the second round,  while half of them have not expressed a preference between Macron and Le Pen. Only 31 per cent have stated an intention to vote for Macron, and it is an open question as to how many of those will bother to go out to vote tomorrow.  

Mélenchon is solidly in the anti-system camp — which includes declining to openly take sides against Putin — and those of his voters that consider Le Pen as a second-best may be much more motivated to go out and vote in the second round than those reluctantly opting for Macron. 

The President should in any case not put his hopes on centre-left Parti Socialiste voters. Their official candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, is now polling at one per cent, the lowest score ever since the 1969 founding of the party of former Presidents François Hollande and François Mitterrand.

There are predictions that the turnout could be only 71 per cent for the first round, which may well break the record of 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round. As we have seen in other votes, for example the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, low turnout tends to favour the anti-establishment side. But these things are very tricky to predict and polls suggesting a close result may well favour Macron in the end — everything hangs on which groups stay home on election day. 

A key feature of the French anti-establishment side is, to put it mildly, a rather dovish stance on Russia, which is also linked to an overall French resentment of American hegemony. It is widely known that Le Pen has secured a loan from a Russian bank in the past — believed by many to haven been facilitated by the Kremlin. 

That does not however mean that a win for Le Pen would suddenly push France into a neutral stance on Russian aggression. French security policy has been largely stable over the years, and whether the left or the right are in charge has not made a decisive difference to military operations, anti-terrorism policies or even foreign policy. 

The gloves have come off in the French press

Yes, Macron is a strong proponent of joint EU action, but after De Gaulle, French Presidential administrations have always pursued relatively consistent policies in favour of greater transfers of powers and money to the EU level, believing this benefits France, something that should perhaps be doubted, giving how also France is a net payer into the EU budget and how eurozone membership has saddled French citizens with a debt burden which French politicians would have been unlikely to pile up if the country still had its national currency.  

A Le Pen victory would of course drive a shock throughout the Western policy establishment, but at least on Russia Le Pen has attempted to distance herself from Putin after his aggression, saying he is “not the same person” she had met in 2017 and speaking of “war crimes” after the discovery of corpses outside Kyiv. She has questioned the sanctions and weapon deliveries, but one does not need to be a fan of Putin to do that. In that regard, it should be noted that Macron has also made great efforts to keep up the dialogue with Putin, continuing the French diplomatic tradition of steering an independent foreign policy course, even as a solid member of the Western alliance. 

After the war and his prominent diplomatic activities seemed to have helped Macron in the polls, he has once again lost popularity, perhaps due to revelations how much his government had spent on consultancy contracts, Macron’s refusal to debate his opponents, and the economic conditions, with grim inflation and skyrocketing energy prices eroding purchasing power. 

Macron is aware of how precarious his position is, and the gloves have come off in the French press, with the President accusing Le Pen of being too close to Putin. Tomorrow is only the first vote, and as the real contest of the second round draws closer, the war of words is only going to get more ferocious.  

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