Less than a year out from the 2022 French presidential election, one may be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu. Similarly to 2017, it will likely be a contest between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party. Moreover, most polls predict that Macron will again beat Le Pen by a comfortable margin in the second round run-off, despite their virtual deadlock in a hypothetical first round.
France’s political environment today, however, has shifted considerably rightward, with citizens adopting more conservative views in line with perceptions of increasing social unrest. Yet ironically, Macron’s overadjustment to this change may present hidden opportunities for Le Pen and the National Rally. Will Macron be able to secure the votes he needs?
THE SAFE CHOICE?
In his emergence from relative obscurity to win in 2017, Macron ran on a platform of “radical centrism,” shattering the established political landscape to create his own movement, La République En Marche. His successful self-branding as “neither left nor right” delivered him victory by attracting votes from across the ideological spectrum. He thus positioned himself as the leading alternative to Le Pen, a safe choice for the many French voters opposed to the far-right. By holding the center ground, Macron successfully formed an anti-Le Pen “republican front” of those from both left and right who — while not necessarily enamored with Macron — nonetheless found him to be preferable to the far-right leader.
Macron, however, has not always governed as a centrist. Over time, he has shifted notably rightward, introducing measures to restrict public filming of the police and cracking down on various aspects of Muslim life, for instance restricting the ability of religious parents to home-school their children and forbidding foreign imams from training clerics in France. In addition to promoting these policies, Macron has also adopted right-wing talking points. This is especially evident in his discourse on Islam — during a long-awaited speech on the effects of Islam on French society, delivered in Les Mureax on October 2, 2020, Macron seemed to seesaw between denouncing radical Islamism and condemning the religion of Islam itself.
The dangers of a potential Le Pen presidency are manifold: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and homophobia to name a few. It is, therefore, in Macron’s interest to retake the center ground.
These actions and rhetoric have largely been responses to real concerns in French society over recent events. Notably, there has been a new wave of Islamist terror attacks, including the fatal stabbbings of three people at a church in Nice on October 29, 2020 and the shocking beheading of a schoolteacher in the Paris suburbs less than two weeks earlier. Macron’s first term has also seen massive social unrest unleashed by the Yellow Vest movement, during which citizens protesting Macron’s attempted economic reforms regularly wreaked havoc upon cities across the country for more than a year. Indeed, the political expediency of such a pivot seems to be borne out in public opinion data: A recent study by the Foundation for Political Innovation found that the proportion of French citizens who identify with the right has risen from 33% to 38% since 2017.
Nevertheless, Macron runs a risk of overadjustment. This same survey noted that the proportion of left-wing voters has remained essentially stable (from 25% to 24%) during the same period. While not as large of a constituency as the right, it is unwise to dismiss the concerns of a quarter of the electorate. Regrettably for Macron, the French left has become increasingly embittered with the disconnect between his original progresive promises, such as reducing inequality or addressing the social causes of extremism, and his more right-wing governing style. According to French political scientist Remi Lefebvre, “left-wing voters feel hurt and humiliated,” making them much less likely to support Macron again.
Furthermore, France’s left has succumbed to infighting amongst its various parties, portending electoral disaster in 2022. This presents an opportunity for Macron to win these voters back by returning to his original centrist position. Without a viable alternative, the left will likely remain open to Macron if he can demonstrate real responsiveness to their concerns. Time, however, is running out. If the French president does not find middle ground soon, many left-wing voters may simply decide to stay home next year.
Such a scenario could deliver victory to Le Pen and the far-right. There is, however, no clear indication of how turnout will be on the right next year. One positive sign for Le Pen is that she was re-elected as party leader with 98.35% of the vote, but this came at the heels of a disappointing regional election. Furthermore, regional elections are not strong indicators of presidential elections in France. While the previous round of regional elections in 2015 saw the traditional center-right and center-left parties emerge victorious, this did not translate to the 2017 presidential contest. It is especially unwise to view the 2021 regional elections as a bellwether given the record-low turnout of 27.89%. As French Prime Minister Jean Castex noted, citizens “had their heads elsewhere” in the midst of the pandemic. Yet, this is unlikely to be the case next year, especially given that more than three-quarters of the electorate typically votes in the presidential race.
TIME IS RUNNING OUT
If the left side of Macron’s 2017 republican front abandons him next year, he may fall short of Le Pen in the second round. The dangers of a potential Le Pen presidency are manifold: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and homophobia dominate the National Rally’s social agenda, while internationally it is likely to act as a Trojan Horse for the Kremlin’s nefarious objectives, including the dismantling of the EU and the subjugation of Ukraine.
It is in both Macron’s personal interest as well as that of the nation and the wider world to retake the center ground. Even if mass abstention on the left does not lead to Macron’s defeat in 2022, his continued rightward shift would nonetheless represent a victory for the National Rally by lending greater legitimacy to its own policy preferences. In this way, the French far right has already succeeded. It is, however, never too late to turn back the tide.
Nick Lokker is the 2021 Europe Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.