International Politics

In The French Presidential Election Unpredictability is the Norm

The French presidential election always throws up a surprise. Be it the shock qualification to the 2002 second round by far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2012 defeat to François Hollande (the first by an incumbent since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981) or the entirety of the 2017 campaign. Éric Zemmour is only the latest edition of a long tradition.

Eric Zemmour waves to supporters at the provencal market in Cannes, France, January 22, 2022 – REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/Alamy

It’s a balmy September afternoon in Paris and, despite France’s humiliating exit from Euro2020 and a diplomatic row with Australia over a scuppered submarine deal, one might understandably argue Emmanuel Macron need not worry about his political future. His popularity continues its steady rise and his principal challenger to a second term, the Rassemblement National’s (RN – National Rally, far-right) Marine Le Pen, though neck and neck with him in the latest presidential polls, looks destined to suffer a repeat of her calamitous run-off 2017 defeat. Woe, it would seem, to the French Right, unable once again to capitalise on the conservative wave sweeping the Western world for the past half-decade. Woe, it would seem, to the French people, obliged to wait, in ennui, for the drab and long-predicted outcome of a drab and long-predicted race.

And yet, Macron’s political advisers warn him: all is not calm on the conservative front. There have been rumours all summer of a potential candidacy from the nationalist political commentator, essayist and firebrand Éric Zemmour, who has recently announced a promotional tour for his latest best-seller, ‘La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot’ (France has not said her last word) –a French tradition for any prospective presidential candidate–, and whose daily shows on the 24-hour news network CNews give him an enviable platform, in front of a ballooning audience, from which to expose his views on France’s decay. 

Though questioned many a time on the subject, the officially undecided Zemmour refuses to give a clear answer, astutely following the age-old maxim: “One comes out of ambiguity only at one’s expense.” His strategy is simple: Wait and see. His position affords him the double advantage of letting the anticipation on his potential bid grow, while enabling him to gun down his opponents during his unofficial nightly rallies. Why decide when no decision is necessary? The choice is made for him. In an unprecedented move and going against its president’s previous stance on the matter, France’s media regulator, the Conseil supérieur de l’audiosvisuel (now Arcom), announces that Éric Zemmour should henceforth be considered a political person (i.e. no longer simply a political journalist) and that, consequently, his time on-air should fall in line with its strict equity rules on political pluralism. Éric Zemmour is compelled to resign from all of his shows and end his twenty-five-year stint at France’s oldest newspaper, Le Figaro. At a stroke, he has been deprived of his most important public communication channels and sources of income. 

And yet, in October 2021, Zemmour’s popularity is on an exponential trajectory; opinion polls giving him between 5 and 19 percent of first-round votes, even overtaking Marine Le Pen as the main challenger to Emmanuel Macron. His tour de France is a resounding success and countless articles are written about him on a daily basis. More importantly, he has managed to shift the political debate onto his preferred playing fields of immigration, euro-scepticism and civilizational decline; forcing his right-wing rivals to sheepishly follow him in hopes of picking up some of his crumbs. All this without even being an official candidate.

The Napoleon admirer he claims to be should have known a winter campaign is a risky choice. A gaffe here and a needless polemic there are all his opponents need to finally make inroads with counter-manoeuvres of their own. His downslide in the polls is epitomised by a sobering, failed trip to Marseille; hitting rock-bottom with the most elegant of fingered gestures given to a passer-by. To save his campaign he must now act. In an attempt to drown out the Les Républicains (LR – mainstream right) party congress, he declares his candidacy on November 30th and, five days later, holds his first political rally in front of nearly 14,000 supporters. Results: lukewarm. Despite a stellar show and a media frenzy, the surprise nomination of Valérie Pécresse (president of the Ile-de-France region) as the LR’s presidential candidate seems to have had a greater effect on the electorate. She sees herself catapulted in the polls overnight, from 10 to 19 percent, potentially beating Emmanuel Macron in the run-off. Éric Zemmour has managed to halt his downward spiral but the winds have changed, and he must now row.

Although Mr. Zemmour has not yet been able to significantly reduce the margin between himself (13 percent at the time of the publication of this article) and both his main right-wing rivals, Mrs. Le Pen (17 percent) and Mrs. Pécresse (16 percent), he is still within striking distance and his campaign has been showing signs of gathering momentum. His strategy of “l’union des droites” (“the Union of the Rights”) –something, he claims, neither of his right-wing adversaries are able to do; Valérie Pécresse, because of her unwillingness to break the cordon sanitaire around the RN, and Marine Le Pen, because of her inability to appeal to the conservative bourgeois electorate of the LR– is starting to bear fruit. His newly established party Reconquête !(“Reconquest”) already has 90,000 adherents and his movement has been receiving the support of a wide array of political actors. After Philippe de Villiers, a well-appreciated figure of the Catholic Right, Sarkozy’s ex-counsellor Patrick Buisson, and Jacline Mouraud, a key instigator of the Gilets jaunes, Éric Zemmour has managed to sway several heavyweights from both the LR and the RN, in the form of Guillaume Peltier (députéand former vice-president of the LR), Gilbert Collard and Jérôme Rivière (both RN MEPs), to his cause.

These defections have undoubtedly hurt his right-wing opponents and given much-needed weight to his political persona. The killing blow, however, still eludes him. Murmurs of Marine Le Pen’s charismatic and popular niece, Marion Maréchal, joining his team are growing ever louder. Her backing would most likely be the push he needs to decidedly make him the leading challenger to Emmanuel Macron. Hopes are understandably high in the Zemmour camp, but expectations might have to be managed. After becoming, in 2012, the youngest député (MP) since 1791, Marion Maréchal turned her back on party politics in the wake of aunt’s disastrous 2017 debacle. She has since founded the Institute of social, economic and political sciences (ISSEP) in Lyon, to serve as a far-right pendant to the increasingly progressive Parisian SciencesPo in the education of the country’s political elite. She and Éric Zemmour have a well-established friendship and much esteem for one-another but, despite being a strong proponent of l’union des droites, jumping back into the political quagmire with no guarantee of success might not be her best option.

Éric Zemmour may have convinced some of the French right’s leadership to follow him; he must now convince the masses to do the same if he wishes to avoid watching his presidential run turn into nothing more than a mere, historical footnote. Abstentionism has been growing in France and many of his compatriots are simply not yet interested in the campaign season. Nevertheless, the electoral geography can work in his favour. 

Marine Le Pen was left humiliated after her 2017 rout by Emmanuel Macron. She only managed to gather 33.90 percent of the run-off votes, in large part due to an embarrassing televised debate, and created a wave of disillusion in her ranks. Her subsequent ineptitude to make any gains in the minor elections throughout Macron’s presidency, often snapping defeat from the jaws of victory, has left many in her electorate doubting she is the right leader to get their ideas into power. Her social turn, in an attempt to attract left-leaning voters, and her strategy of ‘un-demonising’ her name and her party, have further alienated some of her traditional hard- and far-right supporters. They could find in Zemmour a new champion, close to their core values, and, à la Trump, not coming from the political sphere, not afraid to be demonised.

Valérie Pécresse has issues of her own. The Les Républicains party congress that saw her win the presidential nomination in December also saw the surprise emergence of Éric Ciotti, an MP for Nice whose political ideology is more similar to Zemmour’s than it is to Pécresse’s. His respectable 39 percent in the LR nomination’s run-off highlighted the ideological division among the LR voters. Valérie Pécresse will have to appease both sides if she does not want to face the prospect of an early exit. Her traditional ideological home turf is the centre-right and, after leaving LR in 2019 because of the hard-right path it was following, only to return for last December’s nomination race. Motivating the LR hardliners to follow her into battle could prove to be a hard sell. Éric Ciotti has so far refused to join his namesake and has given his full support to his party’s nominee. His partisans might not be so loyal to her. Valérie Pécresse is seen, for the moment, as the only candidate on the French Right able to upset Emmanuel Macron, and so could benefit from the vote utile –a ballot cast in favour of the candidate not closest to one’s ideas, but in favour of the one seen as most likely to win. However, should Éric Zemmour start overtaking her in the polls, some will be tempted to cross the Rubicon.

Persuading the two distinct voter blocs to abandon their respective sides and join forces under his banner will be a tricky test for Éric Zemmour. Some see him as an unserious upstart only seeking to boost his book sales, others as a needless nuisance come to further divide the Right. He insists they are kin split asunder by an artificial Mitterrandian wall. His well-oiled, spirited style –second only to the wily, old-school rhetorics of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France – hard left)– leaves few indifferent, and it will be his strongest asset when facing his opponents in the televised debates. By then, though, it might be a case of too little, too late. With just under ten weeks to go before the first round (10thApril 2022), it is all to play for in the conservative camp. One thing is certain, the cumulative 45 percent predicted first round vote-share of their side indicates the contender to Emmanuel Macron’s second term will come from their half of the political spectrum.

The French presidential election works as follows: should no candidate win an outright majority, a feat not achieved since the establishment of direct universal suffrage by Charles de Gaulle –the Général himself would only manage 44.65 percent in 1965–, the two candidates with the most votes go to a run-off. By bringing both Marine Le Pen’s and Valérie Pécresse’s predicted vote-share into the mid-teens, Éric Zemmour’s candidacy has lowered the entry bar to the second round and unwillingly left the door ajar for the Left.

La Gauche has had what can only be described as a pitiful electoral season. They have been journalistically irrelevant and are still in a state of re-composition after the traumatic collapse of the Socialist Party (PS) in 2017. They total around 30 percent of first-round votes in the latest polls but are split between seven candidates, none wishing to step aside for the other. Leading candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (10 percent) of La France Insoumise (LFI), because he is looking to repeat his impressive 2017 score of 19.58 percent; Yannick Jadot (6 percent) of Europe-Écologie-Les-Verts (EELV  – Green party), because he sees himself, and his party, as the new force of the French Left thanks to successes in both the 2019 municipal and 2021 regional elections; Christiane Taubira (5 percent), new-comer and former Justice minister under François Hollande, and her party Walwari, because she believes she can pull off a Zemmour; Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo (3 percent) because she is representing the institutional PS; and the three far-left candidates, Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte ouvrière (LO – Workers’ Struggle) (0.5 percent), Philippe Poutou of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA – New Anticapitalist Party) (0.5 percent), and Fabien Roussel of the Parti communiste français (PCF) (3 percent), because the proletarian Revolution must never be abandoned. 

The French Left’s traditional voting blocs of the lower socio-economic classes and the liberal bourgeoisie have fled into the arms of Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical brand of progressive Socialism –the Right call it ‘islamo-gauchisme’–, though very popular with the suburbs and the immigrant-descended population, is too unattractive to the general public to get him into power. The PS and EELV, have forgone the universalist and staunchly Gallic secularist ideals that were the backbone of the mainstream French Left since the Revolution, to embrace le wokisme. Possibly sensing a gap for his party to fill, Fabien Roussel claimed, earlier this month, that French gastronomy was “good wine, good meat and good cheese”; an internationally-recognised cliché. His statement caused a media uproar on the Left, as it was deemed to be exclusionary, Franco-French and bordering on the repugnant. Calls for a mea culpa from the PCF’s candidate were rife. Only the conservative media and a few marginal Left voices came to his aide.

After so many years of strong identity and ideological hegemony, masterfully reducing la Droite into defining themselves as solely a ‘non-Left’, the French Left are now struggling to find their feet. A grassroots initiative aiming to select a single candidate with a common manifesto for a unified Left, the Primaire populaire (People’s Primary), was held last week. LFI and EELV have stated their candidates would not participate. Anne Hidalgo (PS), perhaps searching for an honourable end to her still-born campaign, was first in favour before recently backtracking when stories of bias and questionable management within the primary’s organisation emerged in the press. All three were on the ballot regardless, along with Christiane Taubira and a few straw candidates. To nobody’s surprise Christiane Taubira came out on top but, with a meagre 393,000 registered online electors casting a vote in it, strong criticism against it, and the refusal of its most serious runners to recognise its legitimacy, the Primaire populaire is expected to have all the political weight of mist.

In the absence of a clear leader behind which to unite, the French Left look doomed to accept their fate of bystanders in this year’s election. Twenty-seven years have passed since François Mitterand’s reign, ten since the fluke election of François Hollande –who has been floating the imaginative idea he could come back as a unifying figure–, and la Gauche is still searching for its new helmsman. It is unlikely he will unveil himself in the foreseeable future.

Should Emmanuel Macron fail to win a second term, his La République en Marche (LREM – centrists) might not withstand the defeat. The French president is neither an ideologue or a party-politician at heart. In the event his compatriots decide it is time for a new lodger to take up residence at the Élysée Palace, it would be hard to believe Macron would continue a political career as head of an opposition. His party, which was created ex-nihilo for him and by him, would split. The right wing of LREM would inevitably take part in a three-way merger with Horizons and Agir; political movements founded, respectively, by Macron’s former prime minister and Le Havre mayor, Édouard Philippe, and his current minister delegate for Foreign Trade, Franck Riester. The left wing of LREM would therefore have to seek pastures new, perhaps even breathing new life into a tired French Left.

From his palace overlooking the Elysian Fields, Emmanuel Macron has so far remained above the melee. The polls consistently put him at around 24 percent of first-round votes and none of his would-be challengers appear to pose a real threat to his re-election in a run-off, save for Les Républicains Valérie Pécresse in a couple of polls –statistical error, surely. That is not to say he isn’t paying close attention to the developments on the ground. His lightning backpedalling from flying the EU flag, without the usual tricolore,under the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate the start of France’s presidency of the EU Council, is a prime example. A non-candidate Macron would have stood firm. Tactically, or cynically, as have decried his opposition, he has also managed to take back control of the political agenda by making the Covid-19 pandemic the main subject on French lips; thereby forcing his adversaries to take divisive stances on a delicate issue. His “pissing off the unvaccinated” outburst earlier this month, followed by his government’s U-turn on the unpopular Covid measures it had just put in place, have taken a toll on his ratings. Nevertheless, time is a politician’s weapon of choice, and with a little more than two months to go before the vote, Emmanuel Macron has time aplenty to distribute approval-boosting, pre-electoral gifts.

Macron’s rocky first term in office has not shaken the solid core of his voters. His outlook on the upcoming election is positive and his obtainment of a second five-year term seems all but guaranteed. With a rudderless Left and a divided Right against him, Emmanuel Macron has more than enough space to manoeuvre. He can wait until the very last to throw his presidential hat into the ring. All the signs are pointing to him wearing it once again come 24th April – for now, at least. 

Alexandre Philips is a French-American freelance-journalist and former political risk analyst who lives in London

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