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French elections: a divided country faces an uncertain second round

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have qualified for the second round of the presidential election, as in 2022.
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have qualified for the second round of the presidential election, as in 2022. Ludovic Marin/AFP

The first round of the French election took place on April 10, and predictably it did nothing to resurrect old-school parliamentarism, five years after Emmanuel Macron first burst into the country’s fragile party system.

On the contrary. Far from stabilising the political order born in 2017, it unveils an eerie landscape from which the old governing parties seem to be excluded, on the right as well as on the left. Five years ago, with candidate Benoît Hamon at 6.36%, it was the Socialist Party (PS) that was on its way out; now it is the turn of conservative Les Républicains (LR), torn between Emmanuel Macron (La République en Marche, LREM) and Éric Zemmour (Reconquête), tallying less than 5% of the vote. Meanwhile, the PS was overtaken by rural centrist Jean Lassalle (Résistons) and communist Fabien Roussel (Parti Communiste Francais, PCF), marking the lowest score in its history at less than 2%.

This is a terrible descent into hell in a two-tier society where political parties that are still the masters of the game at the local level are paradoxically ditched at the national scale.

Deadly triangulation

In France there has been a longstanding discussion over adjusting the balance of power and creating the conditions for full democratic representation. However, this would have required reforming the country’s political institutions, and successive governments, left and right, have failed to do so. As a result, the merciless, guillotine-like mechanics of the presidential election have been at work, amid an atmosphere where anger and fear compete with resignation.

Uncertain voters, who have alternatively cast their ballot in the name of strategy, values, or protest, have hammered the last nails in the coffin of the distinction between the political left and right. Now, voters hover around three poles:

  • far right, with 32.29% of the vote and which has gained 1.6 million votes compared to 2017.

  • radical left, described by Mélenchon as “union populaire” (popular unity), with 22% of the vote.

  • centre right, as embodied by the current president, who received 27.84% of the vote.

Candidates outside these poles are left isolated: Roussel, Jadot, Pécresse, and Hidalgo total just 13.45% (4,727,073 votes). Caught between the far right and Macron, LR comes out particularly damaged by such dynamics. Valérie Pécresse received just 1,679,470 votes – 5,533,525 fewer than those cast for François Fillon five years earlier.

Ecologists and the socialists are also reeling from the momentum that has benefited Mélenchon – who cast himself as the only progressive candidate capable of facing off against Macron and Le Pen.

Spectacular defeats

In the face of this great political shake-up, some defeats are more noticeable than others: of the twelve candidates, only three received more than 20% of the vote, while nine are below the 10% and eight below the 5% mark – and almost 15 points separate the fourth from the third candidate.

It is particularly strange to observe how at odds this new political field is with local power dynamics. The 2017 presidential election, when the four candidates fought an exceptionally tight race, now seems like another world: at the time, Macron scored 24.01%; Le Pen, 21.30%; LR’s François Fillon, 20.01%; and Mélenchon, 19.58%.

Mélenchon can boast of a higher score than the polls suggested, although probably less important than he had hoped for: at 21.95%, he has progressed by 655,000 votes compared to 2017 (+5.97%). The fact that many ecologists and socialists rallied around him was not enough to compensate for the presence of his former communist ally, Roussell, who this time went it alone. Mélenchon fell short by just 421,000 votes in his bid to overtake Le Pen.

Macron, on the other hand, managed to come out ahead of his main rival by almost four points. With 27.84% of the vote, he improves his 2017 score by more than 1,130,000 votes (+13%). As for Le Pen, her 23.15% shows she has been successful in her appeal to the French to vote strategically for her, thereby overcoming the initial obstacle represented by Zemmour’s candidacy. Compared with the last election, she gains more than 450,000 votes (+5.96%).

Vote transfers

The road to the second round is riddled with uncertainties and pitfalls, and the game that will be played is doubly complex. Aside from the question of who will get the keys to the Elysée Palace, there is also the issue of the capacity of the country’s institutions to meet the expectations of a deeply divided country.

The first round’s results leave us with the illusion the second might yield a clearer outcome. Instead, its three-way crystallisation could curb what constitutes one of the two key dynamics of the second round: vote transfers.

Le Pen seems to have the least to worry about on that front: The far-right vote is homogeneous and the two other candidates in her camp, Zemmour and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (Debout la France, DLF), have called on their supporters to vote for her. In addition, the far-right leanings of the second most popular candidate of the LR’s primaries, Éric Ciotti, make it likely she will reap a share of the votes collected by Pécresse.

Le Pen could end up benefiting from some of Mélenchon’s “everything but Macron” votes. This is despite the fact the leftwing candidate urged his supporters several times on Sunday evening not to “give a single vote” to the far right, while failing to explicitly back Macron.

A difficult campaign for Macron

Faced with two blocs united by their common hostility to him, Macron does not have the same potential resources. It is true that Anne Hidalgo, Valérie Pécresse, Yannick Jadot and Fabien Roussel have firmly and clearly called to vote for him. But their potential electorate remains weak. Macron will have to fight hard to attract Mélenchon’s voters and make an LREM ballot politically less toxic to progressives. Other cards left to play include boosting participation levels among those who shunned the first round. Turnout in the latter was lacklustre: only two points more than in 2002 and four less than in 2017.

This brings us to the second dimension of the election: French institutions’ democratic efficiency. French people suffer from a dearth of confidence in their elected representatives. These past years have gone to show that elections – however brilliant they may be – are not enough on their own to guarantee consent to politics. It will be necessary to invent a mode of government for the country to exit the dead-end into which the presidential illusion has parked it over the decades.

Rather than presidential smoke and mirrors, the future would look very different if France benefited from a proportional representation system that allowed for pluralism and diversity of opinions. If our institutions worked in a way that was more respectful of the balance of power. To make do without this reform in the past five years has been a serious mistake. We must now foot the bill.

Emmanuel Macron seems to have understood this, as he declared on the evening of the first round:

“I am ready to invent something new to bring together [the country’s] various convictions and sensibilities.”

Not having the means to act immediately, Macron must now work to convince voters of how he intends to proceed to help France escape from the vertical and concentrated practice of power up to now.

In light of the results of the first round, the exercise promises to be perilous. One of the French Revolution’s leading figures, Georges Danton, once said that it takes enthusiasm to found a republic. It’s also required to preserve one.

This article was originally published in French

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