Norms and Values
Elections Day in France

The “Elitist-bourgeois” and Europeanist bloc that has gathered around Emmanuel Macron is both solid AND a minority in the country. The “social-populist” bloc, in other words the combination of a vote of conviction regarding a structured social programme and a vote of exasperation structured around a populist-social discourse of real effectiveness, is in fact in the majority in France, writes Valdai Club expert Jacques Sapir.

Emmanuel Macron was re-elected on Sunday, April 24 with 58.5% of the votes cast against 41.5% for his opponent, Ms. Marine Le Pen. However, if we look at the proportion of all registered voters, taking into account a large number of abstentions and blank and invalid votes, the percentage drops to 38.5% for Emmanuel Macron and 27.3% for Mrs. Marine Le Pen. Emmanuel Macron, therefore, appears as a President with an indisputable victory but with very questionable legitimacy. It should be noted that in 2017, Emmanuel Macron won with 43.6% of the registered votes against 22.4% for Marine Le Pen. Since then, the gap has narrowed. There are other differences which are making 2022 not a remake of 2017.

The 2022 election is not a repeat of the 2017 election, whatever one might think. We have seen significant changes in the French political space over the past five years through the events that marked Emmanuel Macron’s first term, whether it be the mobilisation on the issue of pensions, the “Yellow Vests” movement or the health crisis. The brutal management of the latter thus explains why Marine Le Pen is ahead of Emmanuel Macron in almost all the overseas departments. Incidentally, this undermines the idea that Marine Le Pen was a racist candidate.

Emmanuel Macron now clearly appears as the “centre-right” candidate (explaining the drop from 16% to 4.9% for Les Republicains candidate Valérie Pécresse) and Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has solidified an electorate around her. Le Pen remains popular, showing that the momentum of her 2017 campaign ran deeper than one might think. She can no longer, if ever, be called a “far-right” candidate.

We should also note two important factors in the re-election of Emmanuel Macron. He was clearly in the majority among voters over 65. It was therefore an aged France which re-elected the President in the face of a young and active France which either abstained or voted for its adversary. But above all, he benefited from his position as head of state in the tragic times we are living through. Many French believed that with the war raging in Ukraine, the time had not come to elect a new President. As paradoxical as it may seem, Vladimir Putin indirectly contributed greatly to the election of Emmanuel Macron because of the war in Ukraine.

This 2022 election revolved around three issues: social, security and sovereignty. The “social” was essential after the shock of the health crisis, which accentuated social differentiation, but also, temporarily, because of the start of inflation from June 2021. Security, and implicitly secularism, which is part of “cultural security”, was also an issue because of the events which regularly remind French society of this particular dimension. The murder of a teacher, Samuel Paty, by an Islamist terrorist, was an example. He remained present in the memories of French voters. Finally, sovereignty was an issue among those with a good memory, even among those who wanted to bury it during the health crisis as well as since the end of February 2022, amid the war in Ukraine. This explains both the success of the “popular” candidates (Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon) who highlighted the social dimension and maintained a major commitment to sovereigntyb and the rather lamentable failure of Eric Zemmour which, after initial success (he had reached 14% in the polls) fell to 7%. The so-called “union of the rights” strategy that he advocated was defeated, and even crushed, by the “social” strategy adopted by Marine Le Pen. This strategy, which was also defended by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, assumed the maintenance of an autonomous right-wing pole, which has now almost disappeared. It also involved taking into account the popular electorate, which was not done. Eric Zemmour’s campaign, in addition to the caricatures in which he allowed himself to be confined with complacency, largely ignored social issues, and understated the value of sovereignty. The result was therefore predictable and not an accident. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, meanwhile, suffered from his underestimation of the issue of security. If he had been clearer on this subject; if he had not taken a turn leading him to unhealthy complacency with Islamist communitarianism, he would undoubtedly have been able to get ahead of Marine Le Pen and he would probably have been present in the second round of the presidential election.

It should be noted that Marine Le Pen achieved her best scores, more than 55%, in the overseas departments and in parts of Metropolitan France which have been most marked by deindustrialisation. She largely dominates Emmanuel Macron in Pas-de-Calais (57.50%), in Haute Marne (56.96%), Haute-Saône (56.90%) and Ardennes (56.6%).

Another conclusion must therefore be drawn: all of the old “big” parties are dead. The “Republicans” fell to 4.8% and the socialists to 1.9%. It will be said that the lack of incarnation of both Valérie Pécresse and Anne Hidalgo played in this disastrous result. It seems pretty obvious. However, over-personalising an analysis of the outcome would be a serious mistake. Between Macron and Mélenchon and Le Pen, there is no longer any room for comprehensive and coherent centre-right or centre-left programmes distinct from that of the President.

In fact, the recomposition of the political landscape is complex: Macron pre-empted the “centre-right” not only because of the rallying of some of the Republicans and the integration of some of their programmes, but also because of his position of President which, spontaneously, attracts a large part of the traditionally legitimist centre-right electorate. The centre-right no longer has political space for significant autonomous expression. The rallies to... Emmanuel Macron, already notable in recent weeks, will accelerate between now and the legislative elections in June.

The “left” is burying social democracy. The trauma of François Hollande’s five-year term has not been overcome. Among the centre-left, too, rallies to Macron have also multiplied. The left is therefore recomposed around the “radical” Mélenchon and the solidification of a populist electorate around Marine le Pen. The solidity of the “Mélenchonian” pole owes nothing to chance, even if it was helped by a strong phenomenon of “useful voting” which brought it in the last week after the first round, no doubt between 6% and 7% of the votes, and which it would be foolish to deny. The quality of its programme explains it. But the Mélenchon vote still fails to make a significant breakthrough among the popular and working-class electorate. It remains largely marked, except for its “communitarian” dimension, which in reality does not exceed 2.5% to 3%, by the intellectual middle classes. The reason for this is its inability to take up themes that remain essential for this popular electorate, such as those of security (physical and cultural) and its permeability to the so-called “intersectional” theses, whose capacity for division in the working classes is no longer difficult to prove. There, he comes up against the populist bloc which has solidified around Marine Le Pen, and which therefore constitutes the third pole of recomposition of the French political space.

We must therefore note that the “Elitist-bourgeois” and Europeanist bloc that has gathered around Emmanuel Macron is both solid AND a minority in the country. The “social-populist” bloc, in other words the combination of a vote of conviction regarding a structured social programme and a vote of exasperation structured around a populist-social discourse of real effectiveness, is in fact in the majority in France. This block put the weight of 45% of the vote on the simple names of its two candidates. However, if we add to these results the scores of Fabien Roussel (PCF), Jean Lassale (who in reality embodies a small but existing populist-ruralist current), and some of the “Greens” (EELV), we greatly exceed 50%. This is one of the paradoxes of this presidential election: the winner actually represents a minority. But this paradox reminds us of one of the oldest principles of strategy: a larger but divided force can be beaten piece by piece by a smaller but more homogeneous force. We are here today.

It is clear that the ideological borders of the past are slow to die. We have an example of this with the delusional speech treating Marine Le Pen as a “fascist”. Conversely, another no less delusional discourse was constructed stigmatising Jean-Luc Mélenchon from a visceral anti-communism that owes more to reflexes than to the brain. These ideological boundaries may explain why this bloc is unable to unite around a single candidate, thus explaining the success of Emmanuel Macron, whose “centre-right” position is in fact in the minority. If the social bloc and the populist bloc retain, and will retain in the future, their identities, they nevertheless have more in common with each other than with the “bourgeois” and Europeanist bloc that Macron embodies today. As long as these two blocs cannot find the reasonable accommodations that would allow them occasional tacit alliances, they are condemned to leave power in France to a minority.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.