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Has Macron laid the groundwork for a Le Pen victory in 2027?

Macron has regrouped the centre-Left and centre-Right into one party. But it’s left him vulnerable

Philippe Marlière
29 April 2022, 12.00am

Emmanuel Macron's supporters gathered in front of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate his election victory

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Siavosh Hosseini / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

Emmanuel Macron’s Pyrrhic victory last Sunday will not solve the contradictions and tensions at the heart of the French political system.

In a rematch of the 2017 presidential election, Macron defeated Marine Le Pen to become the first incumbent to be elected for a second consecutive term in the past 20 years. At face value, it appeared a comfortable victory.

Yet, the gap between the two candidates flatters to deceive. Between 2017 and 2022, Macron lost almost two million votes. Meanwhile, Le Pen, the candidate of the far-Right Rassemblement National party, gained 2.6 million to receive a total of almost 12 million votes this time around. Her party’s rise is undeniable; 20 years ago, under her father’s leadership, it won just 5.5 million votes – 18% of the total vote share.

The main teaching of this election is that the far Right keeps raising the glass ceiling of its political acceptability. It is now a political force that is firmly rooted in the French political landscape, which, at each presidential election, keeps getting closer to power.

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The mainstreaming of the far Right

Back in 2017, Macron pledged to fight and reduce the influence of the far Right. Five years on, he has clearly failed to meet this objective.

Le Pen has 'de-demonised' her own image and that of Rassemblement National, which is now dominant in several regions of France: in the north (a poor working-class area, which not long ago was an unassailable Socialist bastion), in the north-east, in the south and south-east. She has also made impressive gains in areas where her party was traditionally weak, such as the south-west.

The abstention rate (28%) in the second round came close to the 1969 record (31%) and more than three million people spoiled their ballot. Of those who did vote, many did so tactically. According to one exit poll, 42% of people who voted for Macron did so “to stop Le Pen getting elected” rather than because they thought “he would make a good president”.

This means that millions voted for the incumbent not because they wanted him to win, let alone because they supported his policies, but because they wanted to avoid at all costs a major threat: the election of a far-Right president.

What’s more, the so-called ‘Republican front’, an emergency coalition of mainstream voters from the Left and Right, has been weakened. In 2002, when Le Pen’s father and political predecessor, Jean-Marie, faced President Chirac, one million people took to the streets, in at least 70 cities, to the cry of ‘Stop Fascism!’. Jean-Marie was trounced in the polls, 82% to 18%. In 2022, when Marine Le Pen made it to the second round for the second election in a row, nobody marched in protest. Nobody was surprised. The far Right has become mainstream.

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France’s post-war political system upside down

To realise the scope of the change, one has to bear in mind that, in the space of only five years, Macron has turned France’s post-war political system upside down. The two parties that had alternatively governed the country and dominated French politics for decades – the Socialists on the centre-Left and Republicans on the centre-Right – are deeply weakened, having both been somewhat absorbed by Macron’s movement, La République En Marche. Both may now be on the verge of extinction.

After a term in office that despaired its traditional electorate, the Socialist Party was hit by a major setback in 2017, when François Hollande became the first incumbent president in modern French history to decide against seeking re-election. Macron, at the time the Socialist finance minister, seized the opportunity to run for president. Against the odds, he won the election for En Marche, having appealed to centre-Left voters and Socialist officials.

Back then, Macron came across as a liberal moderniser. He pledged to set up more democratic political institutions, acknowledged French cultural and religious diversity and spoke of upholding the French cultural values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His first term was marked by free-market reforms, which have earned him the nickname ‘president of the rich’

But Macron has not run France as a centrist, let alone as a centre-Left president. His first term was marked by free-market reforms, which have earned him the nickname ‘president of the rich’. He has failed to make any changes to the top-down approach to political decision-making, treated the poor with contempt and has also failed to tackle police cruelty towards migrants.

After syphoning off chunks of the Socialists’ electorate, Macron repositioned himself on the centre-Right, which involved triangulating some of the themes and policies of the far Right. The result was fourfold. It allowed the president to capture a large part of the Republicans’ vote; radicalised those on the party’s far-Right; further normalised Le Pen’s party; and legitimised the candidacy of Eric Zemmour, a media pundit-turned-politician, who has twice been convicted of inciting racial hatred.

Combined, these factors led many voters to ditch the Republicans. The party’s candidate, Valérie Pécresse, secured less than 5% of the first-round vote, a large drop from the 20% won by her predecessor, François Fillon, in 2017.

Like the Socialist Party, the Republicans’ political survival (at least as a major force) is now in doubt. Macron’s political tour de force has been to regroup the centre-Left and centre-Right into one single party. This is a unique achievement in a Western democracy.

What next?

As Macron has blown away the old divide between Left and Right, three political blocs of a similar electoral strength have emerged. A liberal-conservative one with Macron, a far-Right one with Le Pen and a Left one with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a radical candidate who came third in the first round.

The electorate in each bloc appears volatile and polarised, and traditional oppositions on socio-economic issues have been supplanted by endless culture wars on Islam, immigration and national identity. In this context, the young and the racialised have turned to support Mélenchon, the de facto leader of the Left.

Mélenchon, who this week said Macron was “badly elected”, has proposed an agreement over a left-wing alliance to all parties of the Left (Socialists, Greens, Communists and Trotskyists) ahead of the legislative elections in June. Le Pen will also be aiming at increasing her party’s representation in the National Assembly.

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Partly elected by default, Macron did not receive a political mandate to launch his most controversial reforms (notably pushing back the retirement age from 62 to 65). Should he impose unpopular reforms, more social unrest, similar to the yellow vests revolt, would sweep through France again.

There is one quasi-certainty though: if Macron does not engage the disenfranchised categories – the young, the poor, ethnic minorities and the impoverished middle classes – this will further play into the far Right’s hands. In five years' time, Le Pen could be opening the door to the Élysée palace.

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