As France votes, Emmanuel Macron’s reelection is uncertain

As France votes, Emmanuel Macron’s reelection is uncertain

N Melo
by N Melo
April 10, 2022 0

France is voting in the first round of a presidential election that polls suggest could be uncomfortably close for President Emmanuel Macron. Here’s what to know:

  • Macron, a centrist running for a second five-year term, faces a serious challenge from far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with the two candidates separated by only three percentage points in an average of polls measuring voters’ first-round intentions.
  • Macron beat Le Pen by a decisive margin in the last presidential contest, in 2017, but the far-right leader has since sought to moderate her image.
  • The first-round finish order could hinge on voter turnout. By noon, turnout was three percentage points lower than at the same time five years ago.

Macron had been well ahead in the field of 12 official candidates, but a late surge of support for far-right leader Marine Le Pen has cast uncertainty over whether the centrist politician elected as France’s youngest president in 2017 can claim a second term.

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Only three candidates — Macron, Le Pen and far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon — have a realistic chance of qualifying for the second and decisive round on April 24, when the top two candidates will run against each other.

The latest polling averages, of surveys conducted before this weekend, showed 26 percent of voters intend to choose Macron in the first round, 23 percent Le Pen and 17 percent Mélenchon, according to NSPPolls, a platform that compiles French election polls. All other candidates polled in the single digits.

Barring a major polling error, Macron should be able to make it into the second round. But he is expected to face a bigger challenge than when he trounced Le Pen by more than 30 percentage points in the 2017 presidential runoff. Polls predict he would now only win by a small margin of four to six percentage points — a sign of dissatisfaction with his presidency and concern about the rising cost of living.

Explainer: What to know about the French presidential election of 2022

Macron has taken on an elevated international role during the war in Ukraine, serving as an interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a leading voice for the European Union and NATO. Russia’s invasion has also shaken Europe’s sense of security. And so, as a wartime leader, Macron initially saw a boost in public support.

How the war in Ukraine is reshaping the French presidential election
The first round of France’s presidential elections is set for April 10. The Post’s Rick Noack explains the key issues and leading candidates. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack, Jayne Orenstein, Jackie Lay, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

But that lift evaporated over the past two weeks — usually the most intense period in France’s relatively short campaign season.

At the same time, support for Le Pen climbed rapidly, as she won over voters who had been considering her main far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour.

Six weeks before the election, it looked like she might not even collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. But she campaigned hard, portraying herself as a more moderate figure than in the past. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she has distanced herself from Putin and modified her hard-line stance on immigration to make an exception for Ukrainian refugees.

Macron, as is his custom, cast his ballot on Sunday in the seaside vacation town of Le Touquet. Le Pen waited in line to vote in Hénin-Beaumont, a far-right stronghold and former coal mining town in an area that’s been particularly impacted by deindustrialization and unemployment.

Marine Le Pen, second from left, waits to cast her ballot at a polling station in Hénin-Beaumont, France, on Sunday. (Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg)

Macron held only a single large campaign rally, didn’t engage in any direct debates with his competitors, and didn’t deliver any of the big-vision speeches for which he is known.

Although it is not uncommon for French incumbents to avoid the campaign trail, that strategy may not have helped his reputation in the eyes of people who see him as an elitist politician out of touch with the concerns of everyday people.

Ukraine war boosted Macron, but far right surging ahead of French vote

“When you’re a candidate who decides to do a short campaign, you have to have a perfect campaign. You have to be clear, you have to be strong and have a proper platform,” said Vincent Tiberj, a researcher with Sciences Po Bordeaux.

At a polling station in Paray-Vieille-Poste, a suburb south of Paris, criticism that Macron’s campaign lacked sincerity was echoed by Sabrina Famibelle, 38, who voted for Le Pen on Sunday.

“Perhaps I could have changed my mind … and said in the end, well, why not Emmanuel Macron?” said Famibelle, whose parents are both from abroad. “But from his perspective, we don’t deserve his attention or to be convinced.”

“I didn’t understand why he refused to debate with the other candidates. I felt like it wasn’t right,” she said.

Macron has also alienated left-leaning voters who opposed his shift to the right on issues such as national security and who were disappointed with his efforts to fight climate change.

Protesters in Paris on April 9 call on the presidential candidates to pay attention to the climate emergency. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Throughout the campaign, Le Pen largely avoided emphasizing her most controversial proposals and instead focused on echoing popular concerns about the economy and rising inflation. But in their substance, many of Le Pen’s positions are as radical as they were five years ago. This past week, she vowed to issue fines to Muslims who wear headscarves in public.

Zemmour’s campaign has played into Le Pen’s hands. Zemmour is a far-right provocateur sometimes compared to former president Donald Trump and has been found guilty multiple times of inciting racial hatred.

“He’s so disrespectful,” Tiberj said, that Le Pen appears relatively moderate to voters. “But she didn’t move,” he said.

Far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour found guilty of inciting racial hatred

A major unknown in Sunday’s vote is abstention, which could reach a record high, according to analysts, and may complicate polling institutes’ predictions. By noon, only about 25.5 percent had cast their ballots, compared with about 28.5 percent at the same time five years ago.

Voters wait to cast their ballot in the first round of the presidential election in Lyon, France, on Sunday. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past, high abstention rates have often been most pronounced among far-right voters, and Le Pen’s party, National Rally, performed below expectations in regional elections last year.

But the dynamics of French presidential elections are often also driven by frustrations with the incumbent, and Le Pen has sought to channel public anger with Macron’s policies into a historic vote share for the far right.

Experts have cautioned, too, that support for far-left candidate Mélenchon could be higher than indicated in polls, largely because left-leaning voters may spontaneously drop their candidates, many of whom are polling in the low single digits, and decide to coalesce around him.

French law bans all campaigning after Friday at midnight, and candidates worked until the very last moment to encourage their supporters to vote.

“On Sunday, France will speak to the world. Vote!” Mélenchon posted on Twitter with minutes to spare.

Le Pen, who is running for the third time for the French presidency, wrote that she is “ready to lead the country.”

Macron and his allies have in recent days tried to impress upon their supporters that they should not be overly confident that he will win, and that Le Pen’s efforts to mask her radical ideas could still succeed at the polls.

N Melo
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