France is on the brink of a political realignment

10 April 2022

5:00 PM

10 April 2022

5:00 PM

Until a week before today’s first round of the presidential race the French appeared to be shunning their favourite electoral contest. Polls showed that undecided voters, potential abstainers or those likely to cast a spoilt ballot was higher than in the past. Covid and the Ukraine war were blamed for having robbed French citizens of their election. A further reason was incumbent president Emmanuel Macron. He has doubled down on Jupiterian aloofness since his election. He refused to declare his candidacy until the very last moment, condescendingly shunned invitations to debate with other candidates and pompously claimed that affairs of state were more important than election campaigning. Why bother when polls put him well ahead of his rivals? This complacency may cost him dear as his lead shrinks to within the margin of error. Whoever wins, France is on the brink of considerable political unpredictability.

A harbinger of that restlessness is the stunning breakdown in party loyalty and the increasing fluidity and porosity between far left and right. A recent poll showed one fifth of green and left wing voters willing to cast a ballot for Marine Le Pen. When combined with the reservoir of voters to the right of Marine Le Pen, from Eric Zemmour’s camp (10 per cent) and the sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (2 per cent), she has the potential to win, especially when a fair slice of centre-right Valérie Pécresse’s electorate switch to her.

There is clear panic in the Macron camp. First from the growing possibility of a Le Pen victory. Second from the likelihood that their candidate limps over the line unconvincingly and then has no clear parliamentary majority to govern. The President of the Senate – second only to the President of the Republic in authority – recently claimed that French voters already feel cheated of their election with the consequence that the victor’s legitimacy will be undermined with grave political consequences.

The 2022 French election cycle really has three stages: the presidentials, then the parliamentary elections of 12 and 19 June, followed by what is often called the ‘third round’, the point at which French citizens take to the streets in a ‘social round’ to vent their frustration at their choices being, in their eyes, overruled – a lapse of the loser’s consent essential to liberal democracy.

Already the second stage – the legislative elections – is looking extremely messy. The two traditional parties that have governed France under the fifth Republic will disintegrate after the second round, whoever wins. On the left the Socialist candidate (Anne Hidalgo) will be wiped out with 2 per cent, the Green candidate (Yannick Jadot) a mere 6 per cent, while the left’s reputation will be saved by the firebrand hard-left Corbyn-like Jean-Luc Mélenchon (16 per cent), whose France Unbowed party was only created in 2016. So a bitter realignment on the left is beckoning over constituency candidate selection, not to mention party groupings in the new parliament, where a far more left-leaning faction replaces the Socialists.

Bruising realignment is also on the cards for the right. The centre-right Républicain party – fresh from their candidate’s humiliating defeat – will split. Harder right members will broker deals with Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour’s troops over MP selection. These two far right groups may unite to increase their miserly parliamentary representation of only seven députés. That will leave Emmanuel Macron’s five-year old En Marche party – with little local loyalty – hustling the remnants of the Républicain and Socialist parties for a deal. This presages an unruly chamber whoever wins.

A putative ‘third round’ of the electoral cycle is potentially the most destructive and dangerous. There was a foretaste of financial market panic last Tuesday when a poll put Macron and Marine Le Pen on 51.5 and 48.5 per cent (within the margin of error). It led major French Bourse stocks to drop by 5 per cent and French bond spreads to widen. But the greatest uncertainty is the street. On 6 April a highly respected 16,500 sample opinion survey evidenced citizens’ frustration at the absence of a proper campaign: 37 per cent felt proximity to ‘an angry and very militant France’ and 55 per cent said they were ‘aggrieved’. It is a truism that the French have a penchant for the barricade, but the traditional seething dissatisfaction post presidentials is growing, especially since Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017. A feeling that elections always disappoint is more pervasive. Added to that is fear of violent social unrest igniting the banlieues should Marine Le Pen win.

In the dying days of the Second Empire the polemicist Henri Rochefort punned on the unsettled nature of French citizens: ‘France contains 36 million subjects, without counting the subjects of dissatisfaction’. Whatever Sunday’s outcome France is likely to be at its most restless for decades.

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