This coming April, French voters will elect their new president. While the election is still months away and not all candidates have been announced, speculation is well underway. Most notable has been the rising presence of right-wing populist and TV anchor Éric Zemmour, who is making waves by scaring the political establishment with his neo-Nazi rhetoric. As candidates start campaigning this spring, below is a list of people and issues to watch out for in the field in the coming year, as the French electorate decides whether to keep Emmanuel Macron and a predictable future, or vote for change and potential chaos.
Before listing the candidates, however, it is important to note that elections in France are conducted under a run-off system. Voters will first cast a ballot on Sunday, April 10th of 2022 for the candidate of their choice. Then, on the 24th—two weeks later—voters will head back to the polls to decide between one of the top two candidates from the previous round. It is also important to note that France is not a two-party system like the United States. Rather, it has a multitude of parties (outlined below with the candidates) and is split amongst three ideologies: center, left and right, the latter two of which are further divided.
The last election, held in May 2017, saw a change in the second-round contenders. Traditionally, the run-off rounds see a match between the right, Les Républicains (The Republicans), and the left, Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party). In 2017, however, the second round saw a stand-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron from his new party En Marche! against far-right Marine Le Pen from the Front National, now rebranded as the Rassemblement National (National Rally). Macron ultimately won the election with 60% of the vote, but Le Pen has been recognized as his single biggest contender to reelection since then.
This year, a similar run-off round is expected to occur if President Macron does decide to run, as is widely expected of him. The stakes are higher than usual, however. As the incumbent, Macron has a track record to be judged by. Currently holding a 40% approval rating, higher than that of previous presidents seeking reelection but still not stellar, his tenure has seen the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic recession, the populist Yellow Jacket movements that arose as a protest to increase in prices and the finalization of Brexit. The French electorate and media is infamous for being constant critics of any president’s actions, so the seemingly low approval rate reflects the traditional discontentment of the people.
Overall, the election will be a referendum on Macron’s tenure, as well as a clear demonstration of the electorate and the elites’ shift to the right in recent years. The latter is as a result of the growing appeal of right-winged popular and mainstream parties, in the face of continuing issues such as immigration, European integration and the role of welfare. Conservative parties will most likely campaign on issues such as immigration and national security, along with France’s place on the world stage.
More left-wing parties will highlight the need for more workers’ security, the role of labor unions and address the rising cost of living. These latter issues were at the core of the Yellow Jacket movement in 2018, and are not going away anytime soon, especially after the pandemic exacerbated some of these issues.
While the candidates seem to want to talk more about attention-grabbing matters such as immigration, it seems that purchasing power and the cost of living are really what French voters are most worried about. More liberal candidates will also highlight the need for more environmentally friendly policies, although these have often split the vote in the first round between the Green and the Socialist Party.
What follows is a breakdown of the most likely candidate for each party, listed in order of current voter support and importance.
- Emmanuel Macron – En Marche
Current President of France and former Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs under Francois Hollande, Emmanuel Macron made waves in 2017 as the youngest head of state, and for winning so soon after creating his own political movement. He was a phenomenon within the political arena. As for the 2022 election, he has not officially announced his candidacy but is widely expected to. Historically however, the chances of an incumbent French president winning reelection are not great. According to the Institut Montaigne, under the Fifth Republic, only two sitting presidents have been reelected: Charles de Gaulle in 1965 and Jacques Chirac in 2002 while in a “cohabitation” with the opposing party. Nicolas Sarkozy, the last President to seek re-election, lost against Francois Hollande who himself did not run again, knowing he would fail.
But by being a centrist candidate, Macron already may defeat some of these historical trends. His tenure has seen both successes and failures in all areas. While he has been hailed as a newly strong fixture of the European Union, his foreign policy standing also took a hit with the new AUKUS deal. His own domestic policy has also seen ups and downs. When En Marche! rose to power five years ago, there was a drastic increase in young people and women in the legislative chambers. Substantially, more policies were passed that addressed gender parity and helped the conditions of women, including free birth control for those under 25 and paternity leave. However, there is substantial criticism of his “elitist” background, all while he is being blamed for the rise in cost of living. More notably, last spring Macron drew some sharp criticism from the left over his bill on “radical Islamism,” which was deemed racist by many. His current pre-campaigning has been favoring some themes that would resonate with the right, mostly regarding employment and unemployment benefits. The current rightward shift of his focus has been remarked upon for the past year or so, in hopes that he will win back some voters from his strongest opponents, Marine Le Pen and Xavier Bertrand.
2. Marine Le Pen – Rassemblement National
Currently, the deputy representing the department of Pas-de-Calais in the National Assembly, Le Pen has been the leader of the far-right party in France, following in the footsteps of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Like him, she also set her goal to access the Elysée palace. Her party, National Rally, was infamous for its harsh eurosceptic and far-right tendencies. But since 2017, she has softened many of her stances, with the aim of “normalizing” her platform and gaining a more solid support base.
In addition, the recent spotlights on radical Islamism earlier this year have played into her hand since the National Rally traditionally has a platform based on racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Moreover, her attempts to un-alienate herself and her platform from mainstream conservatives have been fairly successful and have increased her standing in the polls, thus placing her as an even more serious contender to Macron. Her campaign on immigration and security, and “traditional” French values will find some reasoning amongst the voters who blame their living conditions on the influx of immigration, or the overall modernization and progressive changes that come with new generations and ways of thinking.
In the 2017 election, as aforementioned, she made it to the second run-off and won roughly 40% of the votes. This time around, she is also expected to make it to the run-off but has lower chances of actually snatching the presidency. This will depend on both the coalition-building in the two-week inter-round period, as well as which candidate she will be running against. Still, there is a tradition in French politics of rallying against the far-right which will most likely squash her chances of actually winning the executive office.
3. Éric Zemmour – No official party, yet
To the American audience, the story of this TV anchor turned potential candidate sporting a right-wing platform should sound familiar. The New York Times has described him as a “Jewish far-right pundit” who “tries to rehabilitate the wartime Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis as part of a campaign filled with provocations.”
He has made waves in the French media, to such an extent that his airtime is now restricted to match that of politicians rather than celebrities. He is all over the news, which kept increasing his platform and have him more power, rather than scaring voters away. It is also further proof that not only is the French electorate tending to the right, but it is also showing intense signs of radicalization. Zemmour has gained in popularity by claiming that “France is in decline both geo-politically and economically which he blames on immigration, and the ‘Islamisation’ and ‘feminisation’ of society.”
Zemmour officially announced his bid for the Presidency on November 30th. For months already, he had been upending the race with his far-right rhetoric and politically incorrect claims. He announced his intention to run in order to “to prevent our children and our grandchildren from experiencing barbarity” and “save” France.
The polls currently estimate he may have enough support to go to the second round, and break the Macron-Le Pen duopoly that has been predicted for years. Yet, his recent tour in the past week prior to the announcement has been met with a slight fall in the polls. He currently places third at 15%, behind Le Pen and Macron. Analysts have said that this reflects a lack of presidential ability in the eyes of the voters, as he has not been able to translate his strong anti-establishment rhetoric to actual action, especially on economic issues.
4. Xavier Bertrand – Les Républicains
Going down a more traditional route, Xavier Bertrand is the current favored candidate for the Republican party. Former Minister for Labor and Health and current president of the region of Hauts-de-France, he knows how government works and sees winning the Presidency as the pinnacle of his 30+ year-long political career. The official candidate will be announced after the party congress on December 4th, but Bertrand stands good odds thanks to his early unofficial campaigning. As additional background, the Republican party is traditionally one of the main parties in France, yet has suffered several scandals in the past few years. Most notably, former President Sarkozy is now in jail for money laundering, and former candidate Francois Fillon has been delegitimized following a fake job scandal involving his wife.
French politics gets wild. Yet, Bertrand has decent odds of making it to the second round and winning against Macron. Despite the recent history of his party, he is less of a controversial figure than others, which puts him as a decent candidate for 2022.
5. Jean-Luc Mélenchon – La France Insoumise (France Unbowed)
A prominent eurosceptic and left-wing populist, Mélenchon has a history of trying to take the establishment on by himself. This will make it harder for him to gain enough traction to make it to the second round. Yet, he is not to be discounted since he has been present on the political scene for so long.
His platform centers mostly around social issues and the rising cost of living in the last few years. As previously mentioned, these issues have been a prominent cause for concern in the past few years, notably giving rise to the Yellow Jacket movement before it became a short-hand for populism. While his platform, save for the anti-Europe sentiment it echoes at times, addresses prominent issues and is focused on the people, Melenchon himself is a controversial figure. According to EuroNews, he “was given a three-month suspended prison term and an €8,000 fine in December 2019 for intimidating officials who were carrying out a search at his office in a probe over funding irregularities.”
6. Anne Hidalgo – Parti Socialiste
Currently the mayor of Paris, she is a candidate who deserves a lot more attention than she has been getting. As the socialist candidate, she is campaigning on health and education, as well as supporting the unions and more environmentally-friendly policies.
Her critics see her as too local since she was mostly present on the Parisian political scene. Being the mayor of Paris is nothing like being the mayor of South Bend, and her work in Paris has been mostly welcomed. Her tenure in Paris has also seen a vast array of different crises, such as the Notre Dame fire and terrorist attacks, to which she has demonstrated admirable leadership. The polls are not in her favor, as the Socialist Party lost a lot of steam under Hollande’s tenure from 2012 to 2017. She would gain a lot by having the left rally behind her, something that is unlikely to happen.
Overall, the upcoming elections promise fierce debates, and interesting questions will be raised. More importantly, seeing the prominence of the far-right movement in the polls, the future of France as a leader on the stage is likely to be placed under a stress-test if the far-right does come to win.
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