Friday, March 31

French elections 2022: what could happen when country heads to polls? | France

What’s the story and why is it important?

France elects its next president in two rounds of voting on 10 and 24 April that will determine the course of western Europe’s second-largest country for the next five years.

Twelve candidates – eight men and four women – qualified for inclusion on the first round ballot paper by gathering the necessary 500 endorsements from elected officials.

Only a handful, however, have any chance of progressing to the second round run-off, including the favourites Emmanuel Macron, the outgoing president, and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally.

Polls suggest three others will secure more than 10% of the vote: the hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon; Le Pen’s far-right rival, the anti-immigrant polemicist Éric Zemmour; and Valérie Pécresse of the rightwing Les Républicains party.

While the split in the far-right vote and Russia’s war on Ukraine favour Macron, the result is far from a foregone conclusion: 40% of voters are still undecided, and the president’s team are particularly worried about the possibility of a low turnout.

The election’s outcome will have an impact beyond France, to the rest of European Union (France is the EU’s second largest economy) and beyond. Since Angela Merkel left office, the liberal, centrist Macron has become the bloc’s most visible leader, a believer in greater “European sovereignty” and an outspoken defender of western values with a clear desire to shape world events.

A Le Pen victory would deal a heavy symbolic blow to the EU and be widely seen as a further populist, nation-first threat to the bloc’s drive for greater integration.

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How does the system work?

To qualify for the first round, each candidate had to secure the backing of at least 500 of more than 40,000 MPs, MEPs, senators, regional councillors and mayors from at least 30 different départements and overseas territories by 4 March.

Assuming – as is virtually certain – that none wins a majority in the first round, the two highest scorers will then face off against each other two weeks later. The winner of that second round needs to score more than 50% of the vote.

The two-round system, also used in parliamentary, local and regional polls, was introduced in 1962 by Charles de Gaulle and has thus far proved effective at keeping extremists from power: the French say you vote first with your heart, then your head.

Where are the frontrunners on the left?

Macron’s victory in 2017 at the head of a centrist political startup blew up France’s political landscape in spectacular fashion, plunging the combined score of traditional left and right parties of government to a historic low.

The Socialist party (PS), which in 2012 controlled the Élysée, parliament and most of France’s regions, was shattered. Its presidential candidate came fifth on 6.4% of the vote, a worst-ever score, and in parliamentary elections it lost 250 of its 280 MPs.

According to polls, the French left, including the Green party (EELV), should attract about 27% of the vote – more than enough to reach the second round if it was cast for a single candidate. However, the vote will be divided between six candidates.

These include Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) and the only leftwing candidate forecast to reach double figures; the Socialist candidate, the Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo; the Greens’ Yannick Jadot; and the Communist Fabien Roussel.

Christiane Taubira, a former Socialist justice minister, won a “popular primary” intended to unify the left but Mélenchon, Jadot and Hidalgo refused to recognise it. She withdrew her candidacy in early March after failing to win 500 endorsements.

And what about the right?

The conservative Les Républicains (LR) were also hit by the arrival of Macron and his La République En Marche (LaREM), failing in 2017 to make the second round for the first time since 1981.

In a France that polls suggest has shifted rightwards, LR is still a potent force: it came back strongly in regional elections last year. But squeezed on one side by Macron, whose centre-right economic policies appeal to moderate conservatives, and on the other by Le Pen and Zemmour, vying for more traditionalist and sovereignist voters, it has little room to manoeuvre.

On the far right, the battle between the two rivals is fierce. Le Pen’s efforts to “detoxify” her 50-year-old nationalist party left her exposed to Zemmour’s more virulent xenophobic rhetoric, leading to defections from the National Rally ranks – including by Le Pen’s popular, more socially conservative niece, Marion Maréchal .

Observers believe Zemmour’s longer-term aim is the demise of the National Rally and the foundation of a new national-sovereignist movement uniting the far right with the more traditionalist right who cannot bring themselves to vote for Le Pen.

Historical first-round results

Who are the main candidates and what do they want?

Emmanuel Macron
France’s president, a former merchant banker and economy minister under his Socialist predecessor, François Hollande, is an economically liberal, pro-business reformist, but a progressive on most social issues. Despite his promise to be “neither right nor left”, in office he is widely perceived as having drifted rightwards. He has also suffered from a reputation for arrogance and aloofness that he has tried to temper. A “rally round the flag” effect at the start of the war in Ukraine led to a polling boost that is fading, but Macron remains favourite.

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen
The leader of the National Rally wants to end immigration, slash crime, eradicate Islamism and save France from globalisation, but has rowed back on plans to pull it out of the EU. Her “economic nationalism” would favour French business, while “France-first” social policies in housing, health, education and employment would favour French people. Her place in the polls suggests her long drive to sanitise the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972 has largely succeeded in softening its image and normalising its policies, while past statements expressing admiration for the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, do not appear to have done significant electoral damage.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Mélenchon
The outspoken leader of La France Insoumise party was a junior Socialist minister from 2000 to 2002 and has campaigned for a shorter working week, lower retirement age, higher minimum wage, benefits and top tax rate, and the end of the presidential regime of the Fifth Republic. A talented orator, he has been climbing in the polls for the past several weeks, but analysts believe he may struggle to match his performance in the 2017 campaign, when he polled almost 20%.

Eric Zemmour

Eric Zemmour
A far-right TV polemicist who has convictions for inciting racial hatred and promotes the “great replacement” theory that Muslim immigrants will “replace” the populations of European countries, Zemmour has won a following for his violent diatribes against immigration. His book on the supposed decline of France has been a bestseller. Despite some large and enthusiastic rallies, Zemmour’s support has, however, faded in recent weeks and in particular since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Valérie Pécresse

Valérie Pécresse
The president of the greater Paris Île-de-France region, the candidate of the rightwing Les Républicains is a former budget minister and has described herself as “two-thirds Angela Merkel and one-third Margaret Thatcher”. Socially conservative (she was heavily involved in anti-gay marriage protests, although has since said she will not revisit the issue), she has tacked towards the hard right on immigration but remains relatively centrist by LR standards on the economy. The need to represent all factions of her party, however, has led to some confused messaging and a campaign that has so far failed to take off.

Yannick Jadot

Yannick Jadot
The choice of Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV), France’s Green party, Jadot withdrew in 2017 to boost the flagging chances of the doomed Socialist candidate but is now aiming to transfer the success his party enjoyed in 2020’s local elections, when it picked up several big city halls, to the national level. He is campaigning for what he has called “concrete ecology in action”: green solutions for commuting, housing, food, rebuilding local economies.

Anne Hidalgo

Anne Hidalgo
The first female mayor of Paris has highlighted her working-class, Spanish-immigrant roots and promised to improve salaries, particularly for teachers. Although her green, car-free policies were popular enough to win her a second mayoral term, she may struggle to shed her image as “too Parisian” for the rest of France, and her flagging campaign is suffering from deep divisions in the Socialist camp.

Who will win?

Polls show Macron winning the first round by a margin of nine or 10 points over Le Pen. Mélenchon is four or five points behind, followed by Zemmour and Pécresse. In the second round, Macron is predicted to beat Le Pen by more than a dozen percentage points.

A lot, however, can still change. French presidential election campaigns have a history of throwing up unexpected events that have sometimes dramatically influenced results.

What happens after the new president is elected?

France holds legislative elections, also over two rounds, on 12 and 19 June – and without a majority in parliament a French president’s powers are limited.

Even if Macron is favourite for the presidential poll, his LaREM party has failed to build grassroots support and polled disappointingly in regional, local and European elections. Many analysts foresee a splintered parliament possibly requiring complex negotiations and alliance-building to secure a majority.

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