France’s electoral system is held over two rounds. In the first, anyone who meets the threshold criteria (this year, 12 candidates) can run. Assuming no one wins an absolute majority (this has never happened), the top two candidates go head to head in the second round. This year, as in 2017, those top two candidates are Emmanuel Macron (centre right) and Marine Le Pen (far right).
One goal of voting over two rounds is to ensure that the final victor enjoys the support of an absolute majority of the nation. The other goal is for people to vote with their hearts in the first round and their heads (that is, strategically) in the second round. But in 2022, neither of these goals has been fulfilled.
Head over heart
The tradition of voting with your heart was based on the old style of electoral competition between various parties of the left and right. People chose their preferred party in the first round, then supported whichever party from their side of the spectrum qualified to the second round. This pattern has collapsed since the emergence of the far right as a major electoral force in France, and the more recent emergence of the centre. For the second election running, neither the mainstream left nor the mainstream right has made it through to the final run-off. Voters are now being forced to vote tactically from the first round onwards.
This year, many mainstream-right voters understood that they would have to give their vote to Macron even in the first round (rather than the mainstream-right candidate) in order to prevent a second round between the far right (Le Pen) and the far left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon). This resulted in a collapse in the vote for the Republican candidate, Valérie Pécresse.
Meanwhile, disunity on the left, with six left-wing candidates competing over similar turf, led to growing fears that the left would once again be absent from the second round. With Jean-Luc Mélenchon being the front-running left winger, a growing consensus emerged on the left to unite tactically behind him. A corresponding surge in support saw Mélenchon’s electorate double to reach 22%. Had a few more left-wing voters gone with their heads rather than their heart in the first round, Mélenchon would have qualified to the second round ahead of Le Pen. Le Pen also enjoyed a tactical transfer of votes from Eric Zemmour, another far-right candidate. They were initially running neck and neck but Le Pen managed to secure a growing advantage over her rival and became the default choice of the far right.
Negative over positive
So the French now vote tactically even in the first round. But what of the other goal – to grant a majority of support to the victor? While this is still technically true, the problem is that many voters will vote negative rather than positive – against one candidate, rather than for the other. While the outcome, in terms of ballots cast, is the same, its significance is very different.
Macron has had five years to disappoint people. It has been a challenging first term, defined by the pandemic and more recently by the conflict in Ukraine. Macron’s key political strategy has been to neutralise the electoral threat posed by the mainstream right Republican party. In this goal he has been very successful; he has poached some of their key players, usurped their policies, encroached upon their electoral turf and caused their vote share in the first round to plummet below 5%.
However, this success has come at a cost. Initially situating himself as a centrist capable of appealing to both the left and the right, Macron has increasingly situated himself firmly on the right, assuming that internal divisions on the left would prevent anyone from presenting an electoral threat from that end of the political spectrum.
While this assumption has largely held true, the consequence is a deep and growing dislike of Macron among left-wing voters. These are the same voters who chose Mélenchon in the first round and who now hold the keys to the second round result. Macron has realised – belatedly – that he cannot take it for granted that these disgruntled voters will choose him over Le Pen. Many intend not to vote at all. Macron’s attempts to win over these voters, without alienating the right-wing electorate that he has so delicately courted, are unconvincing. His best tactic has been to highlight the menace that Le Pen poses to the fundamental values of French democracy, and scare left-wing voters into voting for him, even if reluctantly, in order to block her. Consequently, many voters who choose Macron will do so grudgingly and with a heavy heart.
It is not only Macron courting the negative vote – the “vote against”. Le Pen has positioned her candidacy as a referendum on Macron, and encouraged people to see her as a vote against the policies of the past five years. This is less likely to be an effective strategy for her – many voters disappointed in Macron will choose simply to abstain – but it has bolstered her support among certain categories of the electorate.
Why does this matter? Whoever wins will need to govern the country for five years. They will want to secure a majority in the parliamentary elections in June. They will want a mandate to enact their policies. Le Pen, in particular, is proposing to essentially govern by referendum (because she is unlikely to obtain a parliamentary majority, making it much harder for her to pass legislation through the normal channels). She will therefore need the public behind her more than most other presidents if she were to win.
And more fundamentally, trust in French politics has eroded to the point where mainstream parties have collapsed and the extremes of the spectrum have become central players. Encouraging people to vote against, rather than for, only nurtures this distrust in politics and deepens people’s sense of alienation. Winning an election on a negative vote might be winning a battle to lose a war.