Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Why Macron will need to work his socks off to beat Le Pen this time

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French President Emmanuel Macron improved on his 2017 score in Sunday’s first round of the presidential election. But he goes into the April 24 run-off with a starkly diminished reservoir of votes in what large swaths of the country have come to see as a choice of “the lesser of two evils”.

Macron trounced the same far-right candidate in a lopsided contest five years ago, but polls are pointing to a much closer race this time amid widespread dismay at a rematch voters have long said they didn’t want.

Following the first round, Macron is on course to beat Le Pen by 54% to 46%, according to a projection by pollsters Ipsos-Sopra Steria for FRANCE 24. Other polls have suggested the gap could be as narrow as two percentage points. In any case, Macron is polling well below the 66% he won in 2017 against the very same opponent.

In Sunday’s first round, the incumbent president trailed Le Pen in every age category except the over-65s, who voted massively in his favour. Without their support, he wouldn’t even be in the run-off. But the inability to generate enthusiasm among younger voters is just one of Macron’s problems after five troubled years in office and a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

French presidential election © France 24

“Macron’s reservoir of votes is extremely weak,” said Martial Foucault, head of the Cevipof institute in Paris, noting that rivals from the mainstream whose supporters are most likely to rally behind him have been all but wiped off the political map.

“The scores of the Socialist Party (1.7%) and Les Républicains (4.8%) suggest many of their supporters already voted tactically in the first round. And the more ‘Macron-compatible’ among them gave their votes to the incumbent,” Foucault told FRANCE 24. While Macron can also count on the support of voters who backed the Greens’ Yannick Jadot (4.6%) and the Communists’ Fabien Roussel (2.3%), “we’re talking about a very limited pool of voters”, Foucault added.

At the other end of the spectrum, Le Pen can reasonably expect to pick up most of the 7.1% of voters who backed her far-right rival Éric Zemmour and the 2.1% who went for nationalist right-winger Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – with both candidates throwing their support behind her on Sunday night. Their combined total brings the far right’s tally to an unprecedented 32.5% – underscoring a profound shift in the French electorate and pointing to a substantial reservoir of votes for Le Pen ahead of the April 24 run-off.

Mélenchon voters on the fenceEven more than in 2017, Le Pen’s camp is likely to frame the contest as a battle between globalised urban elites and France’s marginalised peripheries. In that respect, it is perhaps noteworthy that the two most powerful figures in the Paris region – the capital’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and the head of the region, Valérie Pécresse – suffered a shellacking at the polls, recording by far the worst results in the history of their respective parties.

Pécresse’s dismal score was a startling 15 points shy of the 20% reached by scandal-plagued François Fillon five years ago. It wrapped up a gruelling campaign for Les Républicains’ first female candidate – which saw few positives other than her Covid test. Still, Pécresse fared significantly better than the Socialists’ Hidalgo, representing the other mainstream party that once dominated French politics.

Projected vote transfers from the first to the second round. © FMM Studio graphique

Like in 2017, all eyes will be on the 22% of voters who rallied behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical leftist who, once again, fell just short of the second round. On Sunday night, Macron “extended his hand” to the 7.7 million people who backed the veteran leftist, including a third of all voters aged 18 to 24. The incumbent will need to sway some of those young voters in particular if he is to fend off the far right.

As the exit polls came in, a downcast Mélenchon insisted that “not a single vote should go to Le Pen” – an injunction he repeated three times. But he did not call on his base to swing behind Macron, and several post-vote polls indicated that his voters are sharply divided for the second round. According to projections by Ipsos-Sopra Steria, 30% of Mélenchon’s votes could go Le Pen’s way, while a large chunk remain undecided.

“Even though he urged supporters not to vote far right, projections point to a third going to Macron, another third to Le Pen and the last third abstaining,” said Foucault, stressing that “Mélenchon’s role over the next two weeks will be decisive”.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has urged supporters not to give the far right “a single vote”. © FMM Studio graphique

Beyond the far left, Macron is also appealing to the roughly 25% of registered voters who did not vote at all, higher than the 22.3% who stayed home in the first round five years ago. It’s far from certain, however, that the abstentionist bloc of mainly young and working-class French voters will want to support a president who is promising to raise the retirement age to 65 from 62.

Back-handed ‘endorsements’While attention has focused on Mélenchon’s next moves, the back-handed phrasing of other candidates’ “endorsements” did not go unnoticed.

Pécresse said she would herself cast her ballot for Macron and urged her supporters to do likewise. But she accused the incumbent of having “played with fire” by “dodging democratic debate” and setting up a showdown with the far right. Polls have suggested that up to half her base could be tempted by Le Pen, who has sought to moderate her image in recent years to appeal to the traditional right.

In calling for a Macron vote on April 24, the Greens’ Jadot excoriated the president for “having fractured the country through climate inaction”, anti-social policies and “contempt for democracy”. He added: “It is now up to Emmanuel Macron to unite the French in defeating the far right.”

Green candidate Yannick Jadot calls for Macron vote


In his speech moments later, Macron began by thanking candidates who backed him. He promised to “reach out to all those who want to work for France”, calling for the establishment of a “large political movement of unity and action”. Some concrete action is precisely what he needs to offer in the coming days if he is to give substance to his calls for unity against the far right.

Having governed to the right of centre, the incumbent will need to offer left-wing voters in particular some positive reasons to back him. Sandrine Rousseau, the outspoken runner-up in the Green primaries, captured the mood of many disgruntled left-wingers on Sunday, arguing that “it is up to Emmanuel Macron to reach out to the voters he knowingly humiliated throughout his term in office”.

Re-demonising Le PenFive years after celebrating his first-round lead at a swanky Paris eatery, Macron has been careful to project a different image this time, rolling up his sleeves to campaign in Le Pen’s northern heartland in the early hours of Monday. He quoted left-wing icon Jean Jaurès as he toured the town of Denain, where Le Pen took a whopping 41% of the first-round vote. He will head east to Strasbourg on Tuesday, one of many large cities where Mélenchon came first.

Distracted by the war in Ukraine, Macron was blasted ahead of the first round for refusing to debate with his opponents and, indeed, hardly campaigning at all. He has now promised to campaign flat out, “from dawn to dusk, in direct contact with voters”.

On that front, too, Macron has some catching up to do. Le Pen has spent months campaigning in close contact with voters, shunning TV sets and large rallies in favour of low-key events in towns and villages up and down the country – both a tactical choice and a consequence of the dire financial straits of her party.

Despite her plans to sharply curtail immigration and dial back some rights for Muslims in France, Le Pen appears to have made huge strides in her decade-long effort to detoxify her party and her family name. She’s done that, in part, by toning down her rhetoric and ditching some divisive policies, such as her 2017 pledge to quit the euro currency. Zemmour’s extreme-right challenge also had the knock-on benefit of making Le Pen look almost mainstream by comparison.

Macron the ‘favourite’ – but with a ‘fight on his hands’


While Macron focused on the international stage, the National Rally leader spent much of her time mingling with crowds in depressed areas, showcasing her ability to connect with ordinary people. She cast herself as the “candidate of concrete solutions”, detailing plans to curb the price of gas, petrol, wheat and other staples.

“Le Pen succeeded in bolstering her credibility in the eyes of many voters,” said Benjamin Morel, a political analyst at Paris Panthéon-Assas university. “Surveys show that on some issues, most notably purchasing power, she is now considered the second most credible candidate, just behind Macron,” he told FRANCE 24. 

“Macron’s challenge now is to throw her credibility into question and push her back into the toxic, far-right camp,” Morel added.   

The incumbent has already started driving precisely those themes, arguing in his speech on Sunday that his platform “is a much more solid answer to the fears and challenges of our times”. He added, in a dig at the far right: “A country that bars Muslims and Jews from eating in accordance with their faiths – that is not our France.”

Republican front vs anti-Macron coalitionAs he heads into a rematch of 2017, the incumbent president risks being caught up by one of the great paradoxes of ‘Macronism’: being at once an obstacle and, indirectly, a springboard for the far right.

“Macron risks being trapped in a situation he himself created,” said Foucault. “For the past five years, he has worked to install Le Pen as his main rival, challenging her on the right of the political spectrum. [Mélenchon’s supporters] have constantly denounced this, and it will be difficult to sway them over the next two weeks.”

Having played a large part in the demise – or replacement – of the centre-left and the centre-right, Macron has helped propel fringe parties like the National Rally, or indeed Mélenchon’s France Unbowed, into the role of only alternatives. This has further blurred an already fading “sanitary cordon” separating Le Pen’s party from the rest of the political establishment.

Why Macron can no longer count on anti-Le Pen front


“To ensure he would again face a candidate he’d easily beaten once before, Macron contributed more than any other president to normalise the far right’s populist rhetoric,” left-leaning Libération wrote in an editorial on Monday, pointing to Macron’s ministers calling Le Pen “soft” on radical Islam and hounding “Islamo-leftists” in academia.

That assessment may be harsh, but it reflects the mood of many voters whose support Macron will need on April 24.

“Anger and resentment [of Macron] have been building up over the years,” said Foucault. “In this context, it is quite possible that an [anti-Le Pen] ‘Republican front’ fails to emerge, whereas a coalition built around resentment of Macron could take shape.”

Le Pen’s camp is of course well aware of this. They’re already at work trying to replace the ‘Republican front’ with an ‘anti-Macron’ front. “The second round will be all about anti-Macronism,” said the National Rally’s number two, Jordan Bardella, warning that Le Pen’s “reservoir of votes is not limited to Éric Zemmour or Les Républicains”.

Whereas Macron needs to shift gears in the coming days, Le Pen can stick to her first-round strategy of trying to come across as “presidential”. On Sunday, she noticeably didn’t spare a word for Zemmour, studiously avoiding any association with the rabble-rousing former pundit. Instead, she portrayed herself as the president “of all French citizens”, calling on “all those who didn’t vote for [Macron]” to join her and bring about “the change of government France needs”.

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