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Walter Ellis

France at a crossroads 

The 2022 presidential election could prove to be a seismic event that reshapes the battleground of French politics for the next decade. 

As they look ahead to the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring and early summer of 2022, the French are not happy.  

Covid-19 –newly made sorse by the Omicron variant – has taken its toll not just on the elderly and the vulnerable but across the national psyche. There is little obvious optimism left in the public square. The feeling is that the nation is bumping along the bottom of an endless trough, waiting for a recovery that may never arrive.  

The people are wrong, of course. They usually are. France is not done any more than Italy was “done” in 2019 or Greece in 2008. Countries, like individuals and families, come back from disaster. All that is needed is an acceptance that the past cannot be changed, only built upon, and that the future may require both sacrifice and steadfastness of purpose.  

For France, the challenge - though heightened by the pandemic and the resulting economic slump - is much the same as in 2017 when Emmanuel Macron arrived in the Élysée Palace almost as a deus ex machina. The Jupiter President was supposed to kickstart the economy and push through a raft of necessary reforms. Instead, he found himself the latest victim of a recurring democratic paradox – the refusal of key sections of the electorate to endorse the changes for which a substantial majority of their fellow citizens have voted.  

Macron, like Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy before him, has ended up as the punchbag not so much of those – from the extreme left and the far right – who oppose his world view as of the millions of currently cosseted workers who understand the need for reform but are prepared to back it only on condition that it in no way adversely affects them.  

Thus, little progress has been made on public sector pension reform and the related questions of a longer working week and delayed retirement. First, the high-viz gilets-jaunes took to the streets, then the railway workers, finally the trade unions, backed by anarchists and extremists from both ends of the political spectrum.  

Macron does not cave in easily and in the first two years of his presidency he did what he could to remain more or less on course. It was the emergence of Covid in the spring of 2020 that put everything on hold. Having determined early on that the coronavirus would pass through France like a bad flu season, deadly for the elderly perhaps but no threat to his presidency, he made little attempt to get people to mask up or to establish a programme of mass vaccination.  

Western electorates used to be predictable. The centre-left and the centre-right alternated and kept their governments more or less on an even keel. That is no longer true.

Fortunately for France, Macron was quick to realise his error and came back strongly in 2021 – so much so that, following a sequence of lockdowns and the setting up of vaccination centres in every town, village and commune, both the death toll and the rate of hospitalisation were kept in check, better overall than in the UK and most of the EU.  

The fear at the end of 2021 was that another lockdown was in prospect, undermining the economic recovery then underway and stripping away what remained of the President’s veneer of competence in the midst of crisis.  

If the 2022 election cycle had been postponed to 2023, Macron’s political fortunes could have been very different. As it is, the first round of the presidentials is due to take place on April 10, with the decisive second round following on April 24. No date was fixed for the accompanying elections to the National Assembly, but the assumption is that voting in the constituencies will take place in late May or early June.  

Last time out, Macron’s notional party, La République en Marche, won by a landslide, securing 308 of the 577 seats. It is safe to say that this victory will not be repeated in 2022. En Marche has been revealed for what it was, a tribute band for Macron, made up of new and old politicians who felt themselves riding the crest of a wave. Five years on, voters are asking themselves what did the new lot achieve and what right do they have to a second bite of the cherry.  

As for Macron himself, he is up against an entirely redefined national polity. In 2017, the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, of whom much was expected, ended up not only a loser in round one, but under arrest, along with his wife, on charges of embezzlement of state funds. The Socialist candidate was wiped out at the same time, so that the second round was between Macron, the upstart, and Marine Le Pen, the not-so-new face of the National Front. Macron won easily, later celebrating his victory with an address to the En Marche-dominated Assembly delivered from the King’s dias in the Palace of Versailles.  

But hubris brings nemesis, and the battle this time will be harder fought, with an outcome that no one dares to predict with any pretence of certainty.  

The centre-right “Republican” candidate, chosen by party members at the end of a wearisome, but democratic process, is to be Valérie Pécresse, currently president of the capital region, the Île de France, centred on Paris. A daughter of privilege, raised in the country’s wealthiest and most prestigous commune, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Pécresse, 54, is not only bright (and multi-lingual), but, like most top female politicians in France, good-looking and something of a fashion model. She saw off all three previously fancied candidates for the party, Xavier Bertrand, Eric Ciotti and Michel Barnier, and went on to announce, amid thunderous applause, that La droite est de retour! – the Right is back!

Pécresse – derided by opponents on the right as “Macron in a skirt” – is Old-School Conservative, but the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment across much of France has forced her to tack to the right. She will present Macron with the sort of challenge he isn’t used to – a candidate as clever as he is and with longer experience as a political operator. Even if he manages to come out on top, he will know that he has been in a fight.

On the Left, Anne Hidalgo, the Spanish-born mayor of Paris, is seriously up against it. She, like Pécresse, is a seasoned administrator, who in the capital has turned the Socialist cause distinctly green. But the party of Mitterrand remains in the doldrums nationally and, like the Left overall, is not expected to put up more than token resistance to the real big beasts in the race.  

What is new this time round is the grim struggle between Marine Le Pen, looking to contest her third presidential campaign on behalf of the renamed National Rally, and Éric Zemmour – “Z” or “Zezu” – a far-right maverick, eyeing the prize on behalf of himself and his hardline, populist agenda, centred on ending immigration, making life hard for Muslims and generally offering French voters whatever it takes to win their support on April 10.  

Zemmour is a phenomenon – a creation of the right-wing TV channel Cnews – who is entirely in love with himself and his ideas and expects the nation to share his enthusiasm. Not the least of his achievements has been to successfully present himself, born into a family of Sephardic Jews in North Africa, as the number one defender of white, Christian civilisation. Highly intelligent and effortlessly empathetic (so long as the empathies in question are those of the far-Right), he has put the fear of God into Mme Le Pen, whose nativist credentials seem suddenly tired and old-hat.  

What happens if Zemmour and Le Pen get involved in a fight to the death remains to be seen, but it must be obvious to both that in the end there can be only one.  

Photo: Andia / Alamy Stock Photo

Macron has ended up as the punchbag of the millions of cosseted workers who understand the need for reform but only if it in no way adversely affects them.

Macron will be hoping that his enemies will be well and truly scattered by the time April draws near. All he has to do is win the centre ground in round one, gathering the single-highest number of votes, before going into a run-off against whichever of his opponents has managed to outscore the rest.  

It could be that it will be Macron v. Pécresse or Macron v. Le Pen, or even Macron v. Zemmour. No other scenario looks plausible. But however it pans out, the deciding factors in the end will be three-fold: the economy – i.e.  jobs and inflation – immigration (a bigger issue with each passing month) … and Covid.  

Macron has just about held the French economy together. At any rate, French industry appears to be in good shape to take advantage of the global recovery when it finally shows up. The problem is that, in spite of introducing a law that makes it mandatory for French Muslims to endorse laïcité – the separation of Church and State – the President is seen by many to be soft on immigration. He is also on borrowed time when it comes to controlling and, most of all, ending the pandemic.  

Western electorates used to be predictable. The centre-left and the centre-right, with occasional jolts from the extremes, alternated and kept their governments just about on an even keel. But that is no longer true. Voters are jumpy these days. They are bad-tempered, angry and unforgiving. If he can hold off the challenge of Pécresse, and allowing for a dropped stitch or two along the way, Emmanuel Macron ought to have the presidential election sewn up. Though he may lose a hundred seats, or more, in the Assembly, he himself should just about make it home on April 25.  

Or not. Is the French political landscape about to experience a seismic shift that changes the battleground for the next 10, or even 20, years? The truth is, nobody knows. 2022 may yet prove a turning point that academics and pundits will spend their careers examining.

 

Walter Ellis is a France-based journalist who has covered politics across the EU for decades.