Elections in France are moving away from the scenario. It was supposed to be a predictable remake. It turned into a thriller. It could end up being a horror story.
A month ago, Emmanuel Macron seemed to be the first French president to win a second term in 20 years. After Russia invaded Ukraine, his poll ratings soared. He increased his lead by 12 points in a likely run in the second round against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and by 15 points over all other candidates in the first round.
But with the first round taking place on Sunday, Macron’s leadership has almost evaporated. In recent polls, he has an advantage of just two to five points over Le Pen in the first round and a lag behind her of two to eight points in the second round with two candidates on April 24th.
Most French political scientists believe that Macron will still win. So far, Le Pen has magically shied away from any reckoning over his long years as a sympathizer of Vladimir Putin. In the second round of the French election, the presidential powers of the candidates are subjected to a greater stress test than in the first round of multi-candidate.
Le Pen’s economic program is a mess. Its European policy is to hide Frexit – unilaterally cutting payments to the EU budget and violating EU laws, which it does not like. She also wants to ban all Muslim women from wearing the veil in public – not just the burqa, which was banned in 2010. It plans to discriminate against foreigners, including EU citizens, against the right to benefits.
France is an evil country. It is always an angry country. This is particularly annoying because the war in Ukraine has raised already high prices for petrol, diesel and food. But France has no real appetite for a confrontational policy that would destroy the 80-year-old post-war political consensus on tolerance and European unity.
So Le Pen can’t win. Can she?
Probably not. And yet polls suggest that if enough left-wing voters stay home in the second round, refusing to choose between Macron (“president of the rich”) and the seemingly “kinder, fragile” Le Pen, she can win. Simple.
After covering all of France’s presidential election since 1986 and the election in five other countries, I can’t come up with parallels for such a late collapse in the position of the alleged favorite. What on earth happened?
In truth, Macron’s support has not disappeared. It now averages 27% – three points higher than it was for most of last year. When the war broke out in Ukraine, it briefly rose to 31% as people from the softer left and softer right rallied under the flag and the centrist president.
Also, there was no sharp surge of support from the far right. Le Pen’s ultranationalist rival Eric Zemmour was killed in the election by his own years of Putin’s travels. The rapid growth of Le Pen in the first round of polls reflects the decline of Zemmur after the invasion of Ukraine.
In mid-February, they were both about 16%. It is now at 22-24% and Zemmour has fallen by 8-10%. One of the big quirks of the campaign is that Zemmur paid dearly for his idolatry of Putin, and Le Pen, an even more enthusiastic Moscow gypsy, did not.
Zemmur’s extremism against race and Islam has allowed Le Pen to present himself as a major politician close to the common people. She noticed early on the opportunities offered by low wages and high prices. After the invasion of Ukraine, she benefited from the election by linking Russian sanctions – which she does not approve – to the cost of living.
The shift in the second round of opinion polls is also not as dramatic as it seems, but potentially more significant. Macron’s average gap with Le Pen over the past six months was 12 points, 56% -44%. Several polls now put them within two to four points. The Politico poll, which was a very accurate benchmark in 2017, gives Macron a six-point advantage of 53% -47% (but falling).
There are two main reasons why the projected result is much closer than when Macron defeated Le Pen with 66% -34%. First, many more leftists say they will stay home this time. Second, Macron is no longer an upstart, a revolutionary in costume; he is the current ruler.
It is an iron rule of French politics that incumbent presidents hate. The second round of the 2017 election was a plebiscite against the far right; this could become a plebiscite against Macron.
Does Macron deserve it hated? No, he doesn’t. He made many mistakes. Sometimes he seemed arrogant or distant. He failed to build a convincing narrative of success, during his tenure and during the campaign, which he joined belatedly, distracted by the war in Ukraine.
When he finally started campaigning, he accepted what now looks brave (or stupid) in the election, deciding to propose raising the standard French retirement age from 62 to 65.
And yet Macron has something to boast about. He reduced French unemployment to 7.4% – the lowest level in 13 years. France has survived Covid better than many other comparable countries, thanks to the huge government support of individuals and businesses. His ideas and energy have revived the European Union as a thinking force in world politics, not as a fixed, inward-looking bloc.
He can still win the election. But it will be a terrible two weeks for those who care about the well-being of France or Europe.