Written by: Kate Roglieri
On April 10th, French voters will head to the polls to kick off the first round of their presidential election. This year’s election is particularly important and divisive in French politics and culture, as French citizens will cast their votes during a time of unprecedented challenges to the global community. The COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent economic and social challenges, coupled with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine have created tumultuous international conditions that will undoubtedly change the dynamics of France’s biggest election this year. The outcome of the upcoming election will speak volumes about the state of European politics and global dynamics. It is therefore essential that the rest of the world pays attention to the affairs of the Elysée Palace and the state of French politics over the next few weeks.
The French presidential election has a unique structure, with two rounds of voting taking place within a month. There are currently twelve candidates vying for the top two spots that qualify for advancement to the second round. At the top of the pack is the incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron. Macron won the 2017 election on a centrist platform that sought to disrupt the norms of French political parties. His term has been defined by his handling of global crises and his commitment to upholding European unity. Macron’s emergence as a leader in the Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived his popularity, as has the recent recovery of the French economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Macron’s platform is centered upon strengthening the power of the EU and pursuing investments in green technology and energy.
Most polls indicate that the April 24th round of voting will likely see a repeat of the 2017 election, with Macron facing off against polarizing right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen. Le Pen drew comparisons to Donald Trump with her xenophobic and populist rhetoric in 2017, but has since shifted her platform to be slightly more centrist in an effort to capture the support of more of the voting base. Le Pen’s ideology is still highly centered upon anti-immigration policies, particularly with regard to the population of Muslim immigrants in France. On economic policy, she has since retracted calls for France to leave the EU and abandon the euro but still maintains economic policies that prioritize France and its working class.
The major curveball in this election appears to be the candidacy of right-wing newscaster Eric Zemmour. Zemmour, who has recently been convicted of hate speech, serves as the alternative for far-right voters who harbor a distaste for Le Pen’s centrist shift. Zemmour’s rhetoric and ideology advances anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly his embrace of the “great replacement theory” that insinuates that Europeans are being replaced by populations of Muslim immigrants. Zemmour’s increasing popularity in the polls proves favorable to Macron, as it becomes more and more likely that the far right vote will be split between Zemmour and Le Pen, dismantling its electoral challenge to the incumbent. His threat to Le Pen is truly palpable, as some of her political allies including her niece have thrown their support behind her opponent, delivering devastating morale blows to her campaign.
In recent years, populism has re-emerged as a political force in the Western world, and will be at center stage in the French election. Nationalist populism experienced a resurgence with Brexit, the 2016 US presidential election, and Le Pen’s campaign in 2017. According to the French think tank FondaPol, modern populism rests upon several central political ideas: an anti-elite appeal to the working class, nationalist and xenophobic policies, and an authoritarian agenda that typically revolves around a political figure with an aggressive personality. Le Pen’s relevance five years after the 2017 election, as well as Zemmour’s legitimate threat to the right-wing vote indicates that these policies still have some traction and support from French voters. The world will be watching this April to see if the pandemic and the threat of the Ukraine invasion will turn French voters towards Macron and his Europe-minded, centrist policies, or if voters will embrace a breed of nationalist populism championed by Le Pen and Zemmour. Their decisions will speak volumes about trends of political ideology in Europe.