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  • Carla Smith

French Presidential Elections: Macron's Challenges for a Divided France

Updated: May 21, 2022

In this Voices piece, our student contributors have explored the stakes and consequences of the 2022 French presidential elections. They unpick the rise of the far-right and the far-left at the expense of the traditional mainstream parties, and analyse the foreign policy consequences of Macron’s reelection.


Just as in the previous presidential campaign in 2017, Macron and Le Pen’s run-off was concluded by the victory of the centre-right candidate and incumbent president. Despite the obvious relief within France’s mainstream electorate, and more broadly throughout the EU and NATO, many voters still have reasons to be concerned. Macron’s victory speech to his supporters in the Champs de Mars was strikingly short and humbling. Indeed, his margin of victory was much tighter than it was five years ago, which Luc and Chloé seek to explain in their contributions. Macron also publicly recognised that many of the votes in his favour were really votes against Le Pen, and that France is more divided than ever. In his post-election speech, he vowed to unite France by becoming the ”president of everyone”.

Macron’s party is nowadays the only remaining, significant pro-EU bloc in France. Both of his main opponents, Le Pen and Mélenchon, are renowned euro-sceptics and have expressed anti-NATO views. Macron’s reelection has bolstered his position as a key player in the EU, and he is expected to use the last few months of the French Presidency of the Council of the EU to push for a stronger EU. The symbolism at his victory speech was heavy as the European anthem, “Ode to Joy”, was playing as he took the stage. Following on from this, Morgane explores what we can expect from France’s foreign policy towards the EU and NATO in a world where strategic autonomy and defence against Russia are more important than ever. Lastly, Carla examines the role of Macron in forging a new French-African relationship in the 21st century.

1. A tale of two campaigns: Marine Le Pen in 2017 and 2022

By Luc Parrot, BSc International Relations, 1st Year

Since the last presidential election in 2017, the share of votes for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen have greatly changed. From 33.9% in the election’s second-round runoff five years ago, to 41.5% in 2022’s second-round runoff, a notable increase is visible. Le Pen says this share increase marks a “victory in itself”. Yet the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron of the centrist La République En Marche party, also has achievements to boast about as the first sitting president in 20 years to be reelected. That said, many of his votes are believed to have come as tactical votes to block a far-right presidency. Therefore, how can we understand the increase of votes in favour of Le Pen?

Le Pen’s uptick in votes partly came from a conscious effort to soften her image. A moderation - or at least a semblance of moderation - in proposed policies attempted to free her candidacy from the ‘far-right extremist’ label. In 2022, dropping her ‘Frexit’ proposal, support for the death penalty, and a ban on dual nationals all appear to be concessions compared to 2017. However, her 2022 campaign still masked a strongly nationalist and anti-immigration agenda. Many argue her proposal of an alliance of nations… respectful of national sovereignties to replace the EU amounts to a Frexit-by-stealth, and her party controversially remains in favour of banning the Muslim headscarf from all public places. Regardless of the ‘softer’ exterior, her party’s core nationalist ideas remained largely the same.

Le Pen has also been ‘undemonised’, as is the term in French politics, through other means. The emergence of polemicist Eric Zemmour and his controversial far-right Reconquête (Reconquer) party, has no doubt aided Le Pen. Zemmour’s previous convictions for inciting racial hatred and espousing the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy differed from Le Pen’s cultural-religious arguments and evoked antisemitic attitudes which Le Pen has publicly condemned. Le Pen suddenly wasn’t the most unthinkable candidate, and later gained a majority of Zemmour’s 7.07% first round votes during the 2nd round runoff. 

Her greater showing this year can also be explained by Macron’s political efforts. En Marche’s great success in creating a broad centrist coalition has left his largest opposition on the extremes. In the first round of this election, the only parties to achieve the minimum 5% vote share needed for their campaign expenses to be paid back were Zemmour and Le Pen’s anti-system far-right parties, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s anti-system left, and Macron’s En Marche. In his success, Macron has squeezed out establishment centre-right and centre-left parties to leave what were previously fringes of French politics as the only true opposition.   

After this election, three blocs remain in French politics. Two anti-system blocs on either end of the political spectrum, and one centrist pro-European establishment bloc. Le Pen has been the more successful of the radical blocs and will no doubt continue to be a leader in the anti-Macronism politics of the future. 

2. Why are traditional mainstream parties are dying in France?

By Chloé Mossberg, BSc International Relations and Chinese, 1st Year

Since the 1958 founding of the Fifth Republic, only two parties have ruled over France. Le Parti Socialiste (PS), the party of Mitterrand and Hollande, and Les Républicans (LR), the party of Chirac and Sarkozy. However, in 2017, Emmanuel Macron – the current French President – founded a new party, won both the presidential mandate and parliamentary majority, and in a bid for the centre —positioned as socially progressive and pro-business — rang the death knell of the French centre-left and right. In 2017, the PS's candidate won just 6.36% while LR's candidate won a stronger 20.01% (still beaten by Le Pen). To make matters worse for the supporters of these parties, in 2022 these scores fell, respectively, to 1.8% under Anne Hidalgo and 4.8% under Valérie Pécresse. In other words, France's traditional parties are now a dangerously endangered species.

The electorate now faces a general three way split: the left radical Mélenchon's France Insoumise, far-right heiress Le Pen's Rassemblement National, and centrist flagbearer Macron’s newly re-elected La République En Marche!. The collapse of the traditional parties can be conceptualised by the phenomenon of Pasokification (see Bluebird’s previous article for this). One can also certainly point to the internal failures of LR and PS as highlighted by Hollande's inactive and unstable governance, or Sarkozy's jail sentence for corruption. However, we should consider the complexity of contemporary issues and the increasing role of identity politics and political personalities.

While the parties may have changed, contemporary French election campaigns continue to handle a plethora of topics — from immigration to purchasing power, medical deserts to Islamism, European integration to education systems — all of which now lack a solid left-right divide. Take Le Pen for example. Ignoring her immigration and cultural policies, her political affiliations can be unclear: her 2022 programme promised higher wages, free public transport, lower retirement age and a seemingly less radical social conservatism. Consequently, France's extreme-right-wing candidate gained far-left votes in opposition to Macron’s continued leadership. Macron's centrist stance implies similar ambiguity and Mélenchon, in certain policies — from Euroscepticism to anti-vaccination passes to transport — mirrors Le Pen's attitudes. This political flexibility is less accessible to traditional mainstream parties that rely on a reputation of consistency and experience.

Furthermore, France’s political system is undergoing a change from a 'representation system' to an 'identification system' as identity politics and personality politics rise. France has Europe's second-lowest trust levels in parties. New parties are not called parties, they are called movements and they are driven by personality— Mélenchon, Le Pen, Macron. This development is increased by the advent of the internet — a tool the personality-driven parties readily exploit, such as Mélenchon's use of discord communities and YouTube video publications.

LR and PS are likely not to recover, if anything because both fell short of 5%, the minimum for state reimbursement of campaign costs, and thus face severe financial difficulties. Future French governments will be built on other foundations. For now, France faces the new challenge of the legislative elections, often known as the ‘third round’, which will likely lead to the reinforcement of the current three-way split, as evidenced by Mélenchon's moves to unite the major left parties for the upcoming legislative elections.

3. Foreign Policy Implications of the French Elections: Macron’s views on the EU, NATO and Ukraine

By Morgane Lecomte, BSc International Relations, 2nd Year

The foreign policy implications of the standoff between Macron and Le Pen are critical, given the different perspectives of the candidates, especially on Europe. Macron’s re-election will come as both a relief and a warning for other leaders. His second term promises some continuity with his assertive, pro-European and perhaps ambitious leadership style. However, while Macron’s internationalist and European aspirations serve his definition of France’s national interests well, it could be asked who truly benefits from the President’s international presence.

Macron is currently the leading advocate for the development of a more strategically autonomous EU, seeking to ensure European security independently from NATO and the US. Despite sometimes having conflicting views on strategic autonomy, it seems the Franco-German alliance will continue to push for a more sovereign Europe, influenced by its interests. This raises the question of the choices made by EU members on cooperation and integration. While the French election results show a push against nationalism, being able to tackle the threat of democratic backsliding in member states is still a problem the EU needs to deal with before it can effectively approach other issues. Macron has developed functional relationships with other EU leaders, such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and has proven that he is a competent president. It remains to be seen whether he will manage to improve European cooperation on issues touching so closely upon state sovereignty as security. It is also important to ask whether he will be able to convince the disillusioned French that the energy he puts into Europe is valuable to them.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict provides an illustration of Macron’s leadership style. His prior scathing assessment of NATO has since been tempered by the necessity of prioritising the EU’s plan for energy security and continuity, just like he has had to adjust his relationship with Putin in light of the crisis. However, while Macron is promising financial and military support to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, he has also disregarded the movement towards the isolation of Russia and attempted to keep the dialogue with Putin open. This has been controversial, but it demonstrates Macron’s ambitious plan to put France at the forefront of international crises and maintain an important French presence in the EU and outside of it.

Ultimately, Macron’s plans for French and European foreign policy rely on his ability to secure support from his allies in Europe and in NATO, which may not be guaranteed. It is unlikely he will scale down his European ambitions, but most agree that the focus of his second term should be the domestic reunification of a fractured France. Macron should remember he is accountable to the French people, who will require him to focus his attention on crucial social and economic issues that have caused controversy in recent years, such as pension schemes, the environment and public debt.

4. What Macron’s re-election means for France-Africa relations

By Carla Smith, BSc International Relations and History, 2nd Year

The re-election of Macron was highly applauded on the African continent, as African leaders such as Senegal’s President and current Africa Union chairman Mackey Sall, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara expressed through Twitter their warm congratulations for his victory. Their messages reiterated their desire to strengthen the friendships between France and various African countries, many of which are former French colonies and still rely on France’s safeguarding of the CFA Franc currency. Macron’s second term will therefore be an occasion for France to redeem its image in Africa and among France’s African diaspora.

During his first mandate, Macron was praised for his efforts in building more trust in a historically complex set of relationships. He was the first French President to proclaim its colonial past as a crime against humanity in 2017 and then went on to commission an enquiry into the history of France in the Algerian War of Independence. Furthermore, he appointed a panel in 2019 to investigate French involvement in the Rwanda genocide, a policy Le Pen has criticised. Towards the end of Macron’s first term, he visited President Kagame and sought forgiveness for the country’s responsibility in Rwanda.

However, many pan-African activists have criticised Macron for his overly realist policies in Africa. They perceive French military involvement in the Sahel such as Operation Barkhane as an example of neocolonialism in West Africa. France’s relations with Mali have been rapidly deteriorating since March 2022 when French troops were asked to leave without delay, impeding France’s plan of withdrawing over several months. This breakdown of relations is becoming more severe as Mali has hired mercenaries from Russian group Wagner. Macron also has an inconsistent record of supporting human rights both abroad and domestically. Under his government, France gave Egyptian dictator Abdel al-Sisi the Légion d’Honneur, its highest award, even as he rules over the worst repression in Egyptian history.

France should continue to place francophone Africa at the forefront of his foreign policy, centring on the African youth as he announced during his Ouagadougou speech in 2017: “I want to be the person who helps Europe (…) to listen to Africa’s youth, to make the best of it”. One option would be to move away from the traditional government-to-government format to pursue a relationship with wider civil society instead. The first attempt at this was held in Montpellier during the 2021 New Africa-France Summit, which allowed an open dialogue between Macron and young Africans. He must use his second mandate to forge new links with Africa and continue his efforts to recognise the traumas inflicted by French colonialism, while showing a harder stance on the respect for democracy and human rights.

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