Macron survives, but how long can the center last in France?
On April 24, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected President of France, defeating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen for the second time. After what briefly seemed like a close race in early April – with a survey putting Le Pen two points behind the incumbent – Macron’s victory was a relief to many.
Yet compared to 2017, the gap between the two candidates has narrowed: Macron has received 18.8 million votes this year, two million less than in 2017, while Le Pen collected 13.3 million, almost two million more than five years earlier. The difference between their voting shares has been reduced by almost half. Does this mean that support for Le Pen’s nationalist populism is on the rise in France? That’s only part of the story.
Three major trends have been confirmed. First, far-right ideas have gained ground by integrating, not by radicalizing. When Le Pen’s extreme platform emerged, it once again failed to win the approval of voters. Secondly, the left-right divide in France is permanently weakened: new fractures are emerging, geographically and politically, between the center and the periphery. Third, Macron’s presidential momentum is likely to be short-lived. Unless he wins a large government majority in the next legislative elections, his second term is likely to be marked by sustained challenges from the left and the far right. 2022 has brought conflicting lessons, and it remains to be seen if and how Macron can adapt his unique brand of centrism.
Integrate the far right
French presidential politics is played out in the center. Because the second round of the presidential election is a duel between two candidates, each must seek to obtain an absolute majority of voters. Marine Le Pen has understood for a long time that she had to overcome the fundamental aversion that her candidacy aroused in order to reach the final round. To this end, she sought not to activate the more radical factions of her camp, but rather to look palatable to a majority of voters.
Le Pen campaigned for the 2022 election on the cost of living rather than immigration and on civil liberties rather than national identity. In an effort to break down ideological barriers, just as Macron does, she declared his disinterest in the idea of left and right in politics. The strategy worked: between the first and the second round, it won not only 17% of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left voters but also 18% of Valérie Pécresse’s centre-right voters.
However, Le Pen’s metamorphosis is far from complete. Benefiting from the presence in the race of a much more visibly extremist candidate, Eric Zemmour, she was able to maintain the ambiguity of her radical program throughout the first round, sounding more populist than nationalist. This allowed Le Pen to win sympathy and suggest to voters that, rather than being disruptive, she would benefit working-class, rural French people. Tellingly, in February 2022, nearly twice as many voters believed that their personal situation would improve if Le Pen were elected (27%) as with Macron (15%).
However, in the two weeks between the first and second rounds, Le Pen’s platform and proposals finally came under media scrutiny and political fire from a wide spectrum ranging from the far left to the center right. . His radical ideas, such as banning the headscarf in public spaces, or setting up a “national preferencefor public services, were once again publicly debated. He woke up the “republican front”, a coalition of French voters who recognized that, while they did not necessarily want to vote for Macron, they still had to prevent the far right from gaining the presidency. Le Pen’s 10-year “detox” strategy has come a long way, but, once again, failed.
New fault lines
The weakening of the once decisive divide in French politics between left and right, theorized and exploited by candidate Macron five years ago, was confirmed during this election. The candidates of the two major parties who had dominated the French party system until 2017 received catastrophic scores (4.8% for Pécresse of the center-right Les Républicains and 1.8% for Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, of the center-left socialists). Instead, new divisions appear.
Over time, Macron came to represent the center, not only politically but also geographically, while Le Pen’s camp came to embody the periphery. President has received a greater share of the votes of the executives than him of the workers, and of French voters with a higher education than not. Polls show that those who are satisfied with their lives voted overwhelmingly (69%) for Macron, while almost 80% of those who are dissatisfied voted for Le Pen. The same patterns hold for self-identification: almost 80% of those who feel “comfortable or privileged” voted Macron, while those who consider themselves “disadvantaged” chose Le Pen (65%). 70% of French voters in major cities chose Macron (up to 80% in Île-de-France), while Le Pen achieves its best scores in rural France (50%) and in small towns far from large cities (46%), as well as in peri-urban areas (45%). It’s not just Le Pen that resonates with the periphery; the other anti-system candidate too. DOM TOM voted massively for the extreme left Mélenchon in the first round, then for Le Pen in the second (with strong abstention in both cases).
While 2022 was a repeat of the second round of 2017, the dichotomy between center and periphery seems to be taking hold in French politics. However, the third man in the election, Mélenchon, who trailed Le Pen with almost 22% of the vote in the first round, argues that there are in fact three blocs emerging in French politics: a social-progressive bloc , he argues, is now in competition with the centrist bloc of Macron and the nationalist bloc of Le Pen and Zemmour. The first is taking shape: all left-wing political forces (Greens, Socialists and Communists) joined forces with Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, in a New Popular Ecological and Social Union (NUPES) before the legislative elections, which will take place on June 12 and 19.
Five difficult years ahead for Macron
Emmanuel Macron managed to get re-elected for a second term, a feat that his last two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, failed to achieve. But nothing in his second term will be a political honeymoon, as he will face opposition from the left and the far right.
Despite Macron’s clear victory, the mood in his camp the day after the election was gloomy. To beat Marine Le Pen and attract leftist voters after a panic in the polls, Macron worked to correct his image on two fronts: his style of government, perceived as too vertical and solitary, and his policy in terms of action for climate, considered insufficiently ambitious. Now that promises have been made, in particular to make France »a great ecological nation“, the president will be closely watched by his left flank to ensure he keeps his promises.
Moreover, Macron, who had to deal with the virulently anti-government yellow vest protest movement during his first term, will have to be very attentive to popular discontent. Four days before the second round, 59% of French dreaded that his re-election would divide the country. Abstention reached almost record figures: 24% in the first round and 28% in the second, with nearly 9% of voters having voted null or blank on April 24. Overall therefore, more than a third of French voters rejected the choice between Macron and Le Stylo in 2022.
Macron can hope to regain some momentum, if he manages to keep his government majority in the June legislative elections. His party, newly renamed Renaissance (Renouveau), can count on a broad coalition with other centrist and center-right parties, but will have to face frustrated nationalist opponents from the camps of Le Pen and Zemmour as well as revitalized left-wing opponents from the newly created NUPES. Polls further indicate that Macron is likely to achieve his goal, avoiding an arduous cohabitation. The center remains a precious ground to hold in France, but the challenges of the periphery are multiplying.