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France election: Five reasons why the Macron-Le Pen face-off will look very different this time

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By Alasdair Sandford  with AFP
This picture taken on April 6, 2022 in Marseille, shows folded electoral leaflets of rival candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French presidential race.
This picture taken on April 6, 2022 in Marseille, shows folded electoral leaflets of rival candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French presidential race.   -   Copyright  NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP

Emmanuel Macron goes into the French presidential run-off as the frontrunner ahead of Marine Le Pen, with his first-round lead over his rival slightly larger than it was in 2017.

But round two of the duel between the pro-European centrist and his nationalist challenger looks set to be a very different, much closer race than it was five years ago.

Since Macron's then-new "En Marche" movement strode to power, the political landscape has evolved significantly.

Today, the incumbent represents the establishment, and winning over an angry, divided France to keep the far-right out will be a much harder task.

The prospect of Le Pen finally entering the Elysée is a real possibility.

1. 'Far-right at the gates of power' - a much tighter race predicted

The alarm bells amid the surge in support for Le Pen in the run-up to the first-round vote became even more shrill as the result emerged.

Several defeated candidates warned of a "far-right... at the gates of power". Anne Hidalgo for the Socialists called "with gravity" on supporters to back Macron to prevent France from "tipping over into hatred, with everyone against each other". Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans said she would do the same "to prevent Marine Le Pen coming to power and the chaos that would result".

Two opinion polls published on Sunday night continue to suggest a much tighter second-round race than in 2017 when Macron won a landslide as many voters acted to block the far-right as they had done in 2002 with Le Pen's father.

One survey by Ipsos France gives Macron an eight-point lead, on 54% with Le Pen on 46%. Another from Ifop Opinion puts them almost neck-and-neck, with Macron only just ahead by 51%-49%.

The "Rassemblement National" ("National Rally") leader campaigned deftly before the first round on the cost of living, the voters' priority issue. She called for unity behind her cause after securing her run-off place.

But for her rivals and some analysts, Le Pen's reassuring message and softened image mask a programme that remains anchored on the hard right: anti-immigration, for discrimination against foreigners including EU citizens, banning Muslim veils in public, and ready to defy the EU on fundamental principles.

Douglas Webber of the INSEAD business school described her camp as "insular" and "nationalist". Despite a public image now totally "un-demonised", the left-leaning think-tank the Jean Jaurès Foundation concludes that Le Pen's party remains "as radical as before", built on an "authoritarian ideological core, based on the denunciation of insecurity and immigration" which are still "essential elements of its position".

2. Macron as the establishment, not the outsider

Emmanuel Macron has never enjoyed widespread popularity among the French public.

But last time at least he was a fresh-faced challenger to the French political status quo. Five years on, he is the incumbent and familiarity has bred contempt: many see him as the establishment personified.

In 2017, Macron won only 24% of the vote in the first round of the election. Many on the left decried him as the "bankers' friend" or the "candidate of the rich". But for the right, his previous role in François Hollande's government saw him branded a socialist, pilloried as an enemy of traditional conservative values.

This time, he has succeeded in winning over more support, particularly from the centre-right, and to a lesser extent, the centre-left. His government's handling of the COVID-ravaged economy has been praised by economists. Unemployment has fallen to its lowest in over a decade. Entrepreneurship, job creation and job security have been encouraged. Energy prices have been capped. Inflation is lower than in comparable European countries.

But away from the big cities and wealthy parts of the countryside, rising prices continue to hit those who rose up amid the "gilets jaunes" ("yellow vests") revolt in 2018-19, when a wave of protests over an ill-fated rise in fuel duty grew into a near-insurrection. A subsequent drive to transform the input of citizens into the decision-making process has been criticised for bringing little result.

For many, the president cuts an antagonistic figure, seen as aloof and disconnected from the preoccupations of ordinary people. His broadside against the vaccine-averse earlier this year (he vowed to "piss them off all the way") caused further alienation.

Le Pen will doubtless continue to pummel a message that she is in touch with the grassroots and will improve people's spending power. Macron's campaign slogan is "Nous tous" ("All of us"). The president has under two weeks to convince many, who currently believe he represents anything but, that his message of inclusion is sincere.

3. A far weaker 'republican front'

Twenty years ago, the wave of revulsion after "Front National" leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the presidential run-off saw him swept aside as millions, even on the left, propelled Jacques Chirac to a run-off score of 82% and a second term in office.

Fifteen years later, the "republican front" was still alive as hostility to Le Pen's daughter, who had taken on the far-right mantle, secured victory for Emmanuel Macron in 2017 with two-thirds of the vote.

In 2022, Marine Le Pen has largely succeeded in ditching the violent, racist, antisemitic, xenophobic tags that dogged the party for decades. Although many would be alarmed to see her take the keys of the Elysée, many others — especially on the left — are equally if not even more hostile to Macron.

Crucial to the outcome this time are the intentions of those who voted for the left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished a close third with nearly 22%.

"We must not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen," the narrowly-defeated candidate repeated several times on Sunday night. But neither he nor his close allies have said whether they will turn out on 24 April and tick Emmanuel Macron's name on the ballot paper.

As things stand, at least a third of Mélenchon's followers look set to ignore his advice. "Today, Mélenchon's voters intend to vote 34% for Emmanuel Macron, 30% for Le Pen — which is more than in 2017 — and 36% to stay at home," said Ipsos director Brice Teinturier.

"I voted for (left-wing candidate) Mélenchon but I have no wish to vote for Macron in the second round, that will burn my fingers," said Stéphanie Thétio, a 47-year-old vaping shop manager at Bain-de-Bretagne in western France, said on Monday.

Gilles Finchelstein, director of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, told AFP before the first round that the republican front "remains a motive", but "to think that to activate this lever will be enough on its own, is an illusion. For Le Pen's change of image is a reality".

"I am not sure that voters are more fractured by Marine Le Pen than by Emmanuel Macron. Besides what is worrying in what's happened over the last two to three weeks, is that there's been a reactivation of resentment towards Emmanuel Macron among the left-wing electorate."

4. Macron's reserve of extra votes may already be depleted

The first round result saw not so much a division of votes among the 12 presidential hopefuls, as an emergence of three candidates head and shoulders above the rest.

In effect, they represent the newly entrenched blocs in France's new political landscape: Macron's pro-European centrists, Le Pen's nationalist insurgency, and Mélenchon's hard left.

The collapse of the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties suggests a significant number of supporters already switched their allegiance to Macron, perhaps fearing Le Pen's late surge. This in turn could mean that any reserve of extra support the president looked to gain from that part of the electorate might be depleted.

Another worry for Macron is that the nationalist wing of the Republicans may be tempted to switch their vote further to the right, rather than swing behind the president. "Personally, I will not vote for Emmanuel Macron" in the run-off, said Eric Ciotti, an MP from Nice in the south and an early presidential candidate who was overtaken by Valérie Pécresse for the Republican nomination.

The president will certainly be hoping that voters will heed the calls of the several defeated candidates — including Pécresse, Hidalgo and the Greens' Yannick Jadot — to use their vote to back Macron and keep Le Pen out.

The National Rally leader, on the other hand, has been endorsed by her far-right rival, the defeated Eric Zemmour, despite their "disagreements". "I will not get the wrong adversary," he said. "That's the reason why I call on my supporters to vote for Marine Le Pen."

5. War in Ukraine — and relations with Putin

A few days before the first-round vote, Macron challenged Le Pen over her links with Russia and her "indulgence towards Vladimir Putin".

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February saw a spike in support for Macron at home as Europe reacted in horror to Moscow's unprovoked aggression and the president held repeated calls with Putin. But the poll boost turned out to be only temporary, despite his nationalist rival's previously avowed admiration for the Russian leader.

"In a fortnight, perhaps it will be Marine Le Pen in front of Putin. And then what will happen? They will remind each other of past favours," jeered one government minister.

Short of funds ahead of the last election, the far-right leader's then "Front National" looked east and secured a loan of €9 million from a Russian bank that it is still paying back. She also paid a visit to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in the run-up to the 2017 election.

Le Pen's party was the only one in France to back Russia's annexation of Crimea and it has called for sanctions against Moscow to be lifted. Although she has condemned Putin's invasion of the rest of Ukraine as "wrong", the resolute, unqualified support for Ukraine shown by many in the West is not shared by Le Pen's followers celebrating her qualification in Paris on Sunday.

Bryan Pecquer, 21, a student in Angers in western France, said it was "necessary to speak to everyone" when "we prefer diplomacy to war".

Valentin Rebuffet, 24, from the National Rally-run town hall at Bruay-la-Buissière in northern France, criticised as "ridiculous" any idea Le Pen was close to Putin. "Her message is coherent. Difficult to work on spending power while being in favour of sanctions against Russia," he added.

Le Pen largely escaped scrutiny over her stance on Russia and its war on Ukraine before the first round. As he battles for his political survival, expect Emmanuel Macron to crank up the pressure on that and many other issues over the next week and a half.

Additional sources • AP