Friday, April 19, 2024

France’s presidential election rematch is no replay as Macron, Le Pen eye suspenseful final duel

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France is poised for a rematch of the 2017 presidential election run-off with centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen once again advancing to the final after first-round voting on Sunday. But the 2022 race has so far been anything but a replay of the contest Macron won five years ago. And the final result when all votes are counted on April 24 is all the more uncertain for it.

Macron topped the first-round contest, winning 27.6 percent of the vote, according to Ipsos/Sopra Steria estimates late Sunday evening, ahead of Le Pen’s 23 percent score. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon rode a late surge – and an appeal for leftists to vote tactically – to 22.2 percent, narrowly falling short of a place in the final.

The rest of the field finished way behind, a single-digit peloton led by hardline pundit-turned-politician Éric Zemmour on 7.2 percent. The mainstream parties that had traded tenancies at the Élysée Palace for decades until Macron came to power each fell to disastrous defeat; Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse scored 4.8 percent for fourth place, while Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo’s 1.7 percent put her in a humiliating 10th.

Voter turnout was remarkably low. Some 26 percent of registered voters elected to stay home for the first-round, four points up on 2017 and uncomfortably close to the 2002 record of 28.4 percent.

President Emmanuel Macron will face Marine Le Pen in the second round of France’s presidential election. © FRANCE 24

On the surface, the results look like a rubberstamp of poll results stretching back years portending of a rematch of the 2017 final. Then as now, Macron topped Le Pen. Indeed, both on Sunday topped their scores from five years ago, with Macron more than three points up and Le Pen gaining nearly two. But this race has been all but a procession to a predictable result. Macron’s resounding first-round win is deceiving; the suspense remains for the second round in two weeks’ time.

Less to celebrate for vote-topping MacronFive years ago, Macron famously fêted his first-round result deep into the night with campaigners and luminaries at La Rotonde, an upscale brasserie on Paris’s Left Bank. Those festivities drew flak as a little crass, a little graceless, with a run-off yet to win against the far right. But back in 2017, nearly anyone would concede that the next ballot was a foregone conclusion; facing the far-right in a presidential election then still meant virtually automatically winning by a landslide, as it had once before in 2002. A reliable French electoral trope known as the Front Républicain (Republican front) – the propensity for disparate political forces to band together at the ballot box to ward off the threat of any far-right challenger – was sure to kick in.

And indeed Macron, the centrist political neophyte, never before elected to any office, would go on to win 66.1 percent to Le Pen’s 33.9 percent in 2017 to become France’s youngest president.

But five years on, the incumbent would be wise to temper the festivities. After five years of Macron rule that left mainstream conservatives in tatters and leftists exasperated, observers say the Republican front isn’t certain to sweep to the rescue this time and carry Macron to a second term. Indeed, on Friday, the last day polls could be released before the weekend vote, Le Pen finally closed the gap on Macron for just this prospective final; the Elabe firm found Macron polling at 51 to Le Pen’s 49. On Sunday night, another poll by the Ifop firm just after polling stations closed showed the same 51-49 gap, while Ipsos had Macron at 54, with a three-point margin of error. Each puts the far right, for the first time, a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace.


How did it come to this?The 2022 race has been a study in contrasts compared to the 2017 race that first pit Macron against Le Pen.

Macron won that race with all the energy of a bandit. Economy Minister under then Socialist president François Hollande, Macron broke away from the mainstream leftist leader to found his own centrist party, secured financing on his charisma, poached talent literally left, right and centre, and beating the odds on a wave of “throw-the-bums-out” frustration with the old mainstream. His journey to the presidency was a meteoric rise full of swagger and calculated risk.

But as the incumbent this year, Macron’s first-round campaign was vanishingly short on risk – spartan, short and off-key. He officially joined the race at the very last moment, and then only in minimalist fashion via a letter to the French. He claimed – more or less sincerely – that he was too preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic and waging diplomacy on Ukraine to throw himself into a domestic campaign wholeheartedly. Historically an excellent debater, Macron nonetheless refused to debate any of his 11 first-round adversaries face-to-face before the vote; the erstwhile maverick, who had campaigned in 2017 on doing politics differently, simply cited predecessor incumbents who shirked debates, too, during the re-election bids of yesteryear.

Macron did hold a four-hour mid-March press conference to present his re-election platform. But with scant after-sales service from the sitting president, rivals left and right were free to zero in on Macron proposals they were free to paint as brutish: raising the retirement age to 65 and conditioning welfare payments on hours of work.

The campaign-trail standoffishness didn’t do Macron a disservice, at first. Amid war in Europe, Macron rode a rally-round-the-flag effect to new heights in the polls, while his adversaries fumbled for traction. But modern news cycles being what they are, that wartime-leader effect faded as French voters lost interest in the conflict. More to the point, the war in Ukraine is impinging on French pocketbooks back home, at the pumps and at the supermarket, focusing minds on voters’ primary concern: purchasing power.

On the far right, meanwhile, Le Pen has beaten the trail at small-town markets and meeting halls, her campaign focused on just those issues closer to voters’ immediate concerns. She wore her easy-to-grasp pitches for getting money into voters’ pockets on her sleeve – slashing taxis on fuel and excusing anyone under 30 of income tax, sharpening her appeal to a working-class electorate frustrated with the left. And those interested in making sure she was still just as hardline on immigrants and Muslims could consult the brochure.

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