By Dario De Quarti
On the 10th and 24th of April, 2022, French citizens are electing their new president. The elected person will be in charge for 5 years. In France, the President is the head of the Executive Power, the leader of the French Army, and has the power to nominate the Prime Minister (that will successively nominate the other ministers). The previous regional elections, in June 2021, were marked by a record of abstention of almost 65%, in a country marked by a loss of faith in political power. Therefore, the challenge for the candidates is not only to be elected, but also to convince citizens to vote, such that their election could be considered as legitimate as possible. “Immigration” and “security” are the thematics that are prevailing during the French Presidential campaign. Through crises, “health”, “purchasing power” and “military power” became central too. Far behind, “social justice” and “climate change”.
A campaign dominated by right-wing cadidates
So far, the French presidential campaign was dominated by right-wing candidates. it all started in September with the emergence of a new far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour. Previously known as a political journalist and essayist, he became famous in France through his omnipresence on television. Often invited for political TV programs, he would share his sharp theories about what he calls a “civilizational danger”: the “great replacement” (le grand remplacement). This theory argues that a white, Catholic (or Jewish) french population is getting replaced by an Arab Muslim population, because of immigration and higher birth rates for the latter. Zemmour also puts forward the idea that Islam is incompatible with France. As he often says, the French national motto is “Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood” (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité), whereas to him, the values of Islam are “Submission (Islam means submission in Arabic), Inequality (between men and women, between free men and slaves, and between faithful and unfaithful), and Brotherhood only between members of the Ummah (Muslims)”.
As controversial as these ideas might appear, they strongly resonated in the French Society, so much that it endangered the popularity of the long-established candidate of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), Marine Le Pen, who reached the second round in 2017. She is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National (previous appellation of the RN), who became famous for reaching the second round of the 2002 Presidential election, but also for his controversial positions, stating several time that gas chambers were a detail of the history of World War II. Marine Le Pen excluded her father from the party back in 2015. From there, she gained in popularity on the topics that Zemmour tried to steal : immigration, terrorism, security. Also probably due to the multiple terrorist attacks that France faced, she became prominent on the political scene. After the initial roar, the enthusiasm around Zemmour slowly faded, and he was quickly criticized for being too clashing. Le Pen, who fights against “Islamism” (defined as Islamic Fundamentalism) and not “Islam”, regained popularity. Overall, Le Pen has the same ideas as Zemmour, meaning reinforcing security, stopping immigration, and “cleaning” the suburbs, as they would say. However, she is seen as more “presidentiable” (less controversial) than Zemmour. These far-right ideas are shared by about 30% of the French society if we are to believe the latest polls.
Emmanuel Macron: still the favorite for his own succession
However, when the Ukraine war started, Zemmour and Le Pen found themselves in a difficult position with the question of Ukrainian immigrants. Le Pen said it is “natural” to host Ukrainian refugees, because they have “more in common” with White Europeans than Afghans or Syrians, for example. Zemmour was initially against the hosting of Ukrainian refugees but later changed his mind, still saying that he would “refuse a migratory tsunami based on emotion”.
In this context,Emmanuel Macron, the serving President, gained a lot of popularity. After the yellow vests protests (Mouvement des Gilets jaunes), the protests for pensions, public hospitals, education, and police, it seemed that the president’s popularity was at its lowest. However, he is still first in the polls and is considered as the favorite for his own succession. Macron is mostly appreciated because of his charisma as an international statesman, an idea that was reinforced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, when it comes to his program, he is often criticized for using mobilizing but vague concepts such as social justice and security, to please a majority of electors, rather than exposing concrete ideas. Some of his major points are: the bet on nuclear power for the net-zero objective, measures to make agriculture and industry stronger in France, and new retirement policies. Macron seemed to bet on a tacit renewal of his presidency, refusing to debate with all the candidates before the elections.
A weakened left and other candidates
On the left-wing, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from La France Insoumise seems to be the only candidate able to actually gather more than 10% of the votes. “JLM” started his political career in 1976 and is running for president for the third time. He is therefore long-known and famous in France. His ideas rotate around social justice and ecological transition. He is seen as the only candidate with a chance of election able to operate a transition towards net zero carbon emissions in France. However, his personality has always been deemed controversial. The most famous example of his excessive attitude is the famous “I am the Republic” (“La République, c’est moi”) that he pronounced when he was denied access to his office because of an unexpected police search. His positions on China and Qatar, most recently, also provoked debates. He refused to vote on the Uyghur genocide, denouncing the hypocrisy of such a vote and claimed that “France should not boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics more than the 1980 Moscow Olympics or the 2008 Beijing Olympics”.
So far, we have presented 4 candidates out of 12. The remaining eight seem far behind in the polls. Valérie Pécresse is the candidate from the historical right-wing party Les Républicains. She made security a strong priority of her program, with the famous outing where she stated that suburbs (banlieues) needed to be cleaned with a Kärcher, a famous high-pressure cleaner company, recycling a formulation firstly used by Nicolas Sarkozy, a previous French President. However, her charisma was strongly affected by a failed conference at the Zenith of Paris, where she seemed unnatural. Then comes Yannick Jadot, the candidate of the Ecologist Party. Weirdly enough, ecology never imposed itself as an important thematic and Jadot never spiked in the polls. He was also hardly criticized for calling Zemmour “the token Jew” (juif de service). He defends a “gathering ecology” (écologie de rassemblement), as opposed to a marginal view of ecology that could not be approved by the majority of the French citizens.
We also have Anne Hidalgo, the current mayor of Paris and candidate of the Socialist Party, who will probably obtain the lowest score in the history of her formation. Far seems the time when François Hollande was elected. Anti-capitalist candidates Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, the “not-far-right but still-quite-far” Dupont-Aignan (that would have been named First Minister of Le Pen if she had been elected in 2017), the emerging communist Roussel, and the funny yet unpopular Jean Lassalle conclude the panorama.
How is the French President elected?
First, each candidate needed to gather the famous “500 signings” (500 signatures). 500 elected officials (mostly mayors, MP, senators) among a total of 42’000 should give sponsorship to a candidate for them to be officially running. This system avoids whimsical candidates. Then, the election takes place over two rounds. The first one (on April 10th, 2022) is a simple vote between the 12 candidates. The 2 gathering the highest number of votes go to the second round (on April 24th, 2022). There, the one obtaining the majority of the votes is the elected president. In 2017, Macron and Le Pen qualified for the second round. Despite having close results in the first round (24% to 21%), what French people called the Republican Front (Front Républicain) worked to stop Le Pen in the second round (66 to 33%).
This year, the scenario might look similar according to the polls. However, in the last days of the campaign, the topic of the “useful vote” (vote utile) comes back. Because the polls are predicting that some candidates have no chance to get to the second round, voters may polarize around the most popular candidates. This effect is seemingly boosting Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But will it be enough to have a new President? The ballot box will tell. However, in a context where ecology and social justice seem off the table while security and islam are the most debated topics, has the Jour de Gloire really come?
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