France at a crossroads: this time, democracy itself is at stake... again


After the first round of the presidential elections in France, there is everything to play for. The incumbent President, Emmanuel Macron, is in the lead (27.84%), but this time, Marine Le Pen (23.15%) has a real chance of victory in the runoff of 24 April 2022. This is our analysis of the elections.

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Teaser Image Caption
Voting cards for the second round of the french presidential elction 2017 between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

20 years ago, on 21 April 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen made it through to the second round against the incumbent French President, Jacques Chirac, annihilating the left-wing Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and causing a seismic shift in French politics. On 1 May 2002, more than 1 million people took to the streets to demonstrate against the far right. On 5 May 2002, Jacques Chirac was elected with more than 80% of votes cast.

In 2017, after a presidential term (François Hollande) full of disappointment for the Left, a broad movement came together to keep Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine out and vote for a young candidate whose manifesto promises consisted of smashing the old order apart, overhauling France’s political system and putting an end to the relentless rise of the far right in the country. His name: Emmanuel Macron. Result: in 2022, the same candidates have made it to the runoff, with the incumbent president in the lead (27.84%), but this time, there are real chances of victory for Marine Le Pen (23.15%). With his 21.95%, on the other hand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon narrowly failed to pull off his gamble of uniting left-wing and Green voters and many non-voters behind him and winning a surprise place in the second round.

A strange kind of election campaign

After two years of pandemic, the election campaign was turned on its head by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It took place in a climate of unrest and lack of interest in the candidates and their proposals. In spring 2021, the Left and Green parties tried to unite, while in the autumn, the media phenomenon Eric Zemmour dominated news broadcasts, front pages and television talk shows. The themes of “immigration” and the far-right conspiracy theory of the grand remplacement (great replacement) entered the debate and showed how far to the right the debate and political landscape of France had moved.

By the end of that year, a Primaire populaire (People’s Primary) made a final attempt to amalgamate the left-wing candidates and finally presented an additional candidate in January: Christiane Taubira, former minister under François Hollande and icon of the Left, who disappeared as quickly as she had arrived for want of momentum. All these events seemed to leave the French completely unmoved. There was no political moment that really symbolised the election campaign. The lack of a proper public mediatised debate on the manifestoes published by all candidates did not help matters.

This led to a wave of resignation, weariness and disenchantment with politics, particularly among younger people and the less privileged. This was reflected in the turnout rate on Sunday 10 April 2022: 42% of those aged between 18 and 24 and 46% of those aged between 25 and 34 stayed away from the polling stations. Of the two main protagonists of the elections, Marine Le Pen conducted a low-key campaign, while Emmanuel Macron stuck to his position as incumbent President in a time of crisis.

Marine Le Pen’s low-key election campaign

Marine Le Pen decided not to run any risks in this campaign, limited her media appearances to the absolute minimum and – probably due to budgetary considerations, and because she was aware that she would not score many points in large cities – opted to visit a great many small towns and villages in person rather than indulge in large, lavish rallies. In particular, she gently nudged her pet issues, the fight against immigration and the introduction of a “national preference”, into the background (even though they are still core aspects of her manifesto) and managed to ride on the back of the main issue of the whole election: purchasing power (which, according to a survey by Ipsos & Sopra Steria, is the main concern for 58% of French voters).

Facing an incumbent who is often seen as the “President of the rich” or at least of the “France that is doing well”, and a rival to her right, Eric Zemmour, an ideologist who is obsessed by the conspiracy theory of the great replacement (claiming that French people are deliberately and gradually being “replaced” by non-European population groups, principally from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb). In economic policy terms, Zemmour is more concerned by the interests of the inhabitants of the wealthy 16th arrondissement (where he won 17.5% of the votes) than by those of the working classes. Thus, Marine Le Pen opted for a “more social” rhetoric, to appeal to the sections of French society who look less optimistically upon their future. She promised to reduce VAT on essential products, particularly petrol, heating oil, gas and electricity, to renationalise the motorways so as to bring prices down, scrap plans to increase the pensionable age to 65 and to increase certain pensions – but not the minimum wage.

Mathieu Gallard, head of the studies at the Institut IPSOS, has identified a new dividing line that is now more significant than the urban-rural divide: “43% of people who describe themselves as ‘very satisfied with their lives’ voted for Macron (compared to 21% for Le Pen), while 46% of those who are ‘completely dissatisfied with their lives’ voted for Le Pen (and 4% for Macron). Even if Marine Le Pen’s election programme is more about rhetoric than concrete social measures, she has gained votes in low-income households (winning almost 31% of votes among people earning less than €1250, compared to 14% for Emmanuel Macron) and among workers and employees.

Emmanuel Macron: a candidate who has been more President than candidate

In the opposite corner, Emanuel Macron has hardly campaigned at all, in the context of the public health crisis, the war in Ukraine and the fact that France holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU at the moment. He opted to keep his presidential hat on for as long as possible and even benefited from a brief “flag effect” (a rise in the opinion polls for the serving President in a crisis) at the outset of the war in Ukraine.

Without a doubt, his inner circle overestimated the influence of international and European aspects in connection with the invasion of Ukraine on the voting behaviour of the French. His first proposals were geared directly to the voters on the Right: increasing pensionable age to 65, “performance -related” pay for teachers, basing the payment of the active solidarity benefit RSA on hours worked – a stance that probably secured him the votes of many on the traditional Right and hoovered up the votes of their own candidate, Valérie Pécresse. The attempt to balance this out by swinging to the left at his only major rally before the first round, even borrowing a slogan from the revolutionary candidate Philippe Poutou ("Our lives are worth more than your profits"), does not seem to have really convinced less privileged members of the voting public. One thing, however, is certain: the two favourites in the elections have turned France’s old political landscape on its head for good.

6.53% of the votes for the two major traditional governing parties

Following a laborious election campaign, the candidate of the party of former Presidents Mitterrand and Hollande, Anne Hidalgo (PS), Mayor of Paris, gained less than 2% of the votes (1.75%), while the candidate of the party Les Républicains, the successor of the Gaullist party, the RPR of President Chirac and the UMP of President Sarkozy, did not even reach the 5% mark (4.78%). One figure in particular symbolises the implosion of the political landscape in France: the two candidates of the major people’s parties, who have taken it in turn to govern for the last 50 years, took just 6.53% of the votes on Sunday 10 April 2022 between them.

The two candidates were hobbled during the election campaign by a lack of support from their respective political apparatus and struggled to put across the unique selling points of their manifestoes. Valérie Pécresse also had to pay the price for a kind of “tactical vote” (le "vote utile") for the incumbent in the first round. Both of Emmanuel Macron’s gambles therefore seem to have paid off: in 2017, to poach the Social Democrat voters and, in 2022, to force the Conservatives to implode so as to pick off their more moderate voters. The result is that at national level at least – the “traditional” people’s parties and the Greens have strong local and regional roots – the political landscape has been completely restructured, divided into three poles: a liberal, pro-European pole that defines itself as “progressive”, a far-right pole and a radical left-wing pole, which defines itself as “popular”.

Mélenchon benefits from tactical voting on the Left… but not enough

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the party La France Insoumise, who led the “Popular Union” movement, missed out on the second round by a narrow margin (coming in 421,420 votes short). His success would certainly have led to a different debate and a different atmosphere in the two weeks between the two rounds. It is beyond dispute that he succeeded in the last weeks and, in particular, the last days of the election campaign gradually to woo the left-wing and Green electorate, by appealing for them to knock Marine Le Pen out in the first round and winning the support of many public figures of the Left and civil society. Despite an ambivalent stance on Russia, Putin and international relationships and a pronounced degree of Euroscepticism, many socialist or Green voters voted for him in the first round, largely on the logic of the “tactical vote” in favour of the Left rather than because they bought into his manifesto as a whole.

The candidate also appears to have had some success with his strategy of mobilising young voters and non-voters. If only those aged between 18 and 34 had voted, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (around 31-34%) and Marine Le Pen (24-25%) would have met in the second round. The question remains as to whether and how Jean-Luc Mélenchon will remain at the helm of the movement in the coming years, or whether his supporters will want somebody other than the father figure they see him as.

The climate? "In one word"!

11 minutes. Out of 6 hours of political broadcasting on the channel France 2, this is how much time was devoted to the climate. This figure betrays the low level of media interest in the theme, even though the environment is consistently the second- or third-biggest concern of the French in every opinion poll, and although the third part of the IPCC report concludes that we have just three years left to take action to keep global warming below 1.5°C. On the very day the IPCC report was published, journalist Léa Salamé, appearing on the public radio channel France Inter, asked a candidate to answer the only question on the climate “in just one word”.

Against this background, the Greens failed once again to assert their right to a place in the presidential elections. Despite favourable opinion polls at the start of the campaign (around 10%), Yannick Jadot could not swim against the tide of the “tactical vote” and ended up with less than 5% of the vote (4.58%). Although this is the second-best result the Greens have ever had in a presidential campaign, which has never gone the Greens’ way, it is still a bitter disappointment. In the last five years of Macron’s presidency, which has seen many crushing disappointments in climate and environment policy, Green candidates were successful in mayoral elections in many cities in 2020 and managed to secure the top position out of all left-of-centre parties in the European elections of 2019 (with 13.48% of the vote). In the international and European context, it was even harder to put across a positive narrative and highlight the many solutions that will usher in the necessary ecological transformation.

The debate therefore focused exclusively on spiralling energy prices and nuclear energy, described by most candidates – with the exception of Yannick Jadot and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – as essential to safeguard the country’s energy sovereignty, even though, as of the beginning of April, 24 of the 56 reactors in France were not operational and France will only be able to achieve its 2030 emissions reduction goals with a massive roll-out of renewable energies over the next few years. Questions of mobility, although placed back at front and centre of the debate by the Yellow Vest movement of 2018, biodiversity and agriculture were discussed in the election campaign little or not at all. The identity of the candidates in the second round is not exactly a cause for optimism that these issues will be dealt with any better over the next two weeks. In addition, the party’s financial situation after this first round will make the future of the Greens in France even tougher: below the 5% mark, they are not entitled to have their election campaign costs reimbursed and will have to find some way of paying back the six million euros they have spent.

This financial burden could jeopardise the structure of the party (headquarters in Paris plus employees at the party headquarters). A fundraising campaign has already been launched with the hope of raising two million euros by 15 May 2022, to fund the campaign for the parliamentary elections. This is also important for financing, as public funds of around €1.40 per vote cast is assigned to parties winning over 1% in at least 50 constituencies.

The question is no longer “can Marine Le Pen win?” but “how?”

On the evening of the first round, the opinion polls on voting intentions for the second round signalled a more or less clear victory for Emanuel Macron (between 51.5% and 54% of votes). In 2017, Emmanuel Macron won with 66.1% of votes cast. Does Marine Le Pen also stand a chance of winning this time? In 2021, an analysis by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation estimated that one of the following conditions would have to be met to allow Marine Le Pen to take victory in the second round:

  • A massive switch of “moderate” right-wing voters in her favour;
  • A “de-demonisation” strong enough to prompt voters to stay at home rather than vote against her,
  • An equally strong rejection of Emmanuel Macron among his opponents as those of Marine Le Pen.

The results of the first round show quite clearly that all three of these conditions could actually be met.

A massive switch of “moderate” right-wing voters in her favour

The interchangeability between moderate and extreme right-wing voters has become a reality, when even the pre-election candidate of the Les Républicains party, Eric Ciotti, said during the campaign that he would prefer a far-right candidate to Emmanuel Macron in the event of a Macron vs. far-right second round.

A de-demonisation strong enough to prompt voters to stay at home rather than vote against her

Eric Zemmour (7.07%), who was initially seen as her arrival, has recently served as a kind of lightning conductor (diverting the lightning away from Le Pen with his extremely controversial pro-Putin position, enabling her to fly under the radar) and vote reservoir for the Rassemblement National candidate – something she lacked in 2017. In particular, his more pronounced radical views helped to give Le Pen a “more sympathetic”, more moderate and “milder” image, thereby contributing to her de-demonisation.

An equally strong rejection of Emmanuel Macron among his opponents as those of Marine Le Pen

Finally, the policy line taken by Emmanuel Macron in his five years in office (clamping down on certain demonstrations, security laws described as ‘concerning’ by many NGOs, contemptuous little phrases, a controversial education policy, so-called “symbolic” measures against certain groups of the population and reducing housing benefit to young people, students in particular, by five euros per month, failure to act on climate protection) have led to great antipathy towards him among many voters, particularly those left of centre. 69% of people who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon believe that France’s future will be worse if Macron is re-elected (70% believe that this would be the case in the event of victory for Marine Le Pen). This rejection of him could keep these voters away from the polling stations.

To date, Yannick Jadot (Greens), Anne Hidalgo (Socialist Party), Valérie Pécresse (Les Républicains) and Fabien Roussel (Communists) have urged voters to “put a Macron slip in the ballot box” to prevent the election of Marine Le Pen. The Les Républicains party did not adopt the same position as its candidate, instead echoing Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s pleas for “no votes to go to Marine Le Pen”. She is certainly less likely to win than Macron is, but it can no longer be ruled out. The election campaign between the two rounds will therefore be high-risk.

The television debate between the two candidates on 20 April 2022 at 21:00 CEST, an institution of political life in France, will be viewed particularly keenly, after Le Pen made a desperately poor showing in 2017. It is not to be underestimated that for many left-wing voters, this will be the second presidential election in a row and, for some, the third time in 20 years of democratic life that they must vote for a candidate whose ideas and manifesto they do not support, on purpose to keep out a candidate who did not grow weaker during the term in office of the first candidate. Emmanuel Macron has to be able to offer left-wing voters something in return for their votes: his election now depends on them, not on whether people approve of his original manifesto.

Breathing new life into democracy and civil society: a huge challenge for the next five years

The repeat of this clash shows that France’s political system, which focuses on the identity of the President, and France’s political life, which is dominated by the presidential elections, have reached a crossroads. The voting system leads to a debate which focuses more on personalities than on programmes. It leads to tactical decision-making and the enormous political disenchantment of citizens, who no longer feel truly represented. Although there is a huge amount at stake for them, almost half of young people do not bother to vote. This must be taken as a strong signal and listened to.

Irrespective of the result on Sunday 24 April 2022, breathing new life into democracy in France is clearly an objective that can be achieved above all by bolstering civil society, which has been increasingly squeezed out in recent years. This will certainly be a key theme of the next five-year term and Emmanuel Macron must not shy away from it if he is re-elected. Marine Le Pen has promised to bring in proportional representation – as many candidates and Presidents before her have done – and to amend the constitution, bringing in a legal hierarchy between French and foreign nationals (the national preference). But before they can implement their manifesto, the successful candidate will have to reach agreement with the parliamentary majority, to be elected on 12 and 19 June 2022.

Even though the President holds the predominant position in the French political system, it is the majority party in the National Assembly that appoints the Prime Minister and government. The parliamentary elections are therefore a kind of third round of the presidential elections, which have no more been decided at this point than the runoff of 24 April 2022.


This article was first published in French and in German by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Paris, France.