Although the French presidential election is only two months away, it still feels as though the campaign has not really begun. On both the right and the left, the candidates are busy marking off their territories from close rivals. Each seems to be more focused on settling internal accounts than on confronting the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron.
On the left, seven candidates are playing a zero-sum game for no more than 25 percent of the electorate. On the right, a similar contest is playing out between the center and the extreme, with three candidates ultimately vying for about 45 percent of the electorate. Opinion polls currently show Macron winning the first round of voting with 25 percent and being reelected in the second round, regardless of whether he faces Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally or Valerie Pecresse of the traditional center-right party, Les Republicains.
In the meantime, Macron seems content to watch his challengers fight among themselves. He has been postponing the official announcement of his candidacy until the last minute and has made clear that he will not participate in the first-round debates. Macron’s remarkable hold on French political life is anomalous. In most large democracies, politics has become increasingly polarized, with the left and the right locked in a state of mutual hatred. How has Macron managed to hold a moderate centrist line? Part of the answer lies in the exceptional circumstances in which he was elected in 2017. During that election, the left’s main candidate, incumbent President Francois Hollande, was so unpopular — his approval rating was just 4 percent a year before his term ended — that he ultimately opted not to run. At the same time, the candidate of the mainstream right, Francois Fillon, became caught up in a financial scandal and was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges.
Beyond these unique circumstances, Macron also benefited from the growing radicalization of both the left and the right, which enabled him to consolidate control over a large bloc of voters who were worried about extremism on both sides. His campaign followed a textbook “median-voter” strategy, attracting moderate left-wing voters, many of whom remain faithful to him, as well as a significant share of the moderate right.
Now, a new analysis of French electoral trends, based on a sample of nearly 10,000 voters collected by Ipsos, highlights the trajectory of left-wing voters who previously supported Hollande. In 2012, this cohort represented 28.5 percent of the electorate. In 2017, 46 percent of former Hollande voters cast their ballots for Macron. Now, this segment of the electorate is divided into thirds: 36 percent continue to support Macron, 34 percent are preparing to vote again for a left-wing candidate, and 29 percent intend to abstain from voting.
The share of voters committed to the left thus has fallen by some 18 percentage points. Not only has the moderate left defected, a growing share of working-class voters has decided to abstain or support the far right. Since the left is clearly in need of an ideological reboot, its candidates in this election are largely focused on preparing the ground for after Macron leaves the scene.
But Macronism has also had a dramatic effect on the right. The same poll shows that support for Pecresse is lower than it was for Fillon at around this time in 2017, reflecting the migration of right-leaning voters elsewhere. About 29 percent of Fillon voters are preparing to vote for Macron, and 16 percent are supporting Eric Zemmour, the new far-right rival to Le Pen. Pecresse thus commands only 48 percent of Fillon’s electorate. In her efforts to claim both the center right and the radical right, she lately seems more interested in winning over the latter, going so far as to highlight the racist “great replacement” theory developed by far-right thinker Renaud Camus. As with the left, the traditional right is struggling to assert itself against extremists.
The problem for both the left and the right is that this election comes at a time when voters are primarily concerned with kitchen-table issues rather than ideological purity tests. The Ipsos poll shows that the two concerns most frequently cited by voters are declining purchasing power (44 percent) and COVID-19 (35 percent).
These issues — which are mainly about vaccination and the price of fuel — are hardly conducive to ideological grandstanding. The right cannot accuse Macron of fiscal profligacy, because voters want more deficit- and debt-financed support. But nor can the left capitalize on the situation. French voters will protest vehemently against rising energy prices, making it much more difficult to push for new taxes on fossil fuels (even if there are also measures to help reinforce a new consumption model).
Then again, French politics never remains dormant for long, as Charles de Gaulle and Valery Giscard d’Estaing both discovered. In 1965, de Gaulle assumed that election victory was assured, yet against all odds he had to run a second-round campaign against Francois Mitterrand, who had been endorsed by the left, including the Communist Party. Similarly, Giscard d’Estaing, the center-right incumbent, was certain that he would win re-election in 1981. But owing to the fallout from the second global oil shock, he lost to Mitterrand. This year’s campaign, too, might still surprise us. After all, the main protagonist has not yet entered the scene.