As the April election approaches, the front-runners to challenge the President are moving ahead of the pack.
2022 was expected to be the most boring presidential election in the history of the Fifth Republic: a re-run of 2017, without the surprises or the suspense. The same old war horses, from Marine Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, were expected to be trotted out, vociferate, and lose. Emmanuel Macron’s re-election was certain. There was No One Else.
The incumbent himself affected Olympian detachment, secure in decent poll numbers, a good handling of the Covid Fifth Wave, and his own gift for political triangulation. After all, Macron’s overuse of his “en même temps” (“at the same time”) catchphrase, a rhetorical equipoise with which he dismissed the very notions of Right and Left, had stood him in good stead. Certainly, the parties of France’s traditional Left and those of the centre-right were, if anything, in worse shape today than five years ago.
The first surprise came from the national-conservative Le Figaro journalist, cable news talk show host and best-selling author Eric Zemmour, 63, whose possible candidacy started being floated in late spring with cryptic “Zemmour Président” posters appearing overnight in Paris and in regional capitals. Zemmour himself denied knowing anything about them.
The man perhaps too slickly dubbed “the French Trump” is a slight, trenchant polemicist, whose two-year-old daily talk show pushed the hitherto lacklustre CNEWS cable news station all the way up the ratings pole. (It’s been stopped, following a ruling of the broadcasting authority on candidates’ equal time.) His pessimistic books, all describing France as a country in terminal decline, sell in the hundreds of thousands. In person, Zemmour has wit, self-deprecation, and an impish twinkle in his eye, none of which is especially Trumpian. But he is also obsessed with the loss of “French identity”, which he sees as largely caused by unchecked immigration, and a kind of mental capitulation to woke tropes, from happy multiculturalism to the latest education fads imported from America.
When Zemmour finally declared, last November, his voting intention ratings for the first round of the election had shot up in four months from 3% to 18%, briefly overtaking Marine Le Pen for second place and a chance to challenge Macron in the runoff.
All polls predict that he, like her, would lose. Yet such an unprecedented rise from seemingly nowhere scared all the other candidates.
This explains the second surprise: the reshuffling of the deck among the Républicains, the party of Chirac, Sarkozy and, once, de Gaulle (who wouldn’t recognise much in its current iteration), as well as among the atomised Left, whose factions, together, can’t manage to scrape 25% of the predicted votes. The 2022 French presidential election is being fought on the Right, with the kind of discourse rarely heard until now. Marine Le Pen or her father Jean-Marie never managed to impact the public discourse. Eric Zemmour has changed it.
Valérie Pécresse, 54, the unexpected runoff winner of the Républicains primary, who’s the respected president of the Paris region, the country’s largest, was expected to run on her considerable economic achievements - and she did promise to shrink the public sector. But mostly, she won the nomination campaigning on immigration and the breakdown of law and order, never hesitating to link the former with the latter. Her strongest contender in the primary (he polled at almost 40% of the runoff vote) was Eric Ciotti, the relatively unknown MP for the city of Nice, who relentlessly pushed a hard-line, anti-immigration stance, and demanded a “French Guantanamo” for terrorists. Pécresse soon announced an almost indistinguishable system by which convicted terrorists would not be freed at the end of their sentence, but kept indefinitely in special custody as long as they were still considered radicalised. Her line of “restoring France’s pride and protecting the French” could have been, like Eric Zemmour’s, Trump-inspired.
Will Marine Le Pen become the victim of the trend she was unable to predict? She staked her third bid for the presidency on ‘detoxifying’ the National Front. Yet she finds herself threatened by a newcomer courting controversies in an enthusiastic riff of the style for which she fired her father Jean-Marie from the movement he founded.
That’s a far cry from her image as an efficient, moderate technocrat, the class-swot product of top Parisian Catholic schools and of École Nationale d’Administration. An elegant woman with a slightly stand-offish manner, she was successively Secretary of State for Universities and for the Budget under Nicolas Sarkozy (who supported her in the primary, proving once again that while he’s out of the actual running, he remains the true Godfather of the Républicains). An early December poll handed Pécresse victory in the presidential election second round by 52-48, the first time Emmanuel Macron was predicted to lose: she was seen to be snatching votes from both Zemmour and Macron. For that she needs to beat a crowded field to come second in the first round, which is not yet certain, even if the hard-right vote remains almost equally split between Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, at around 15% each while Macron hovers at 25%. But the most recent trends favour her.
There were five challengers in the Républicains primary, including Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, who blithely took the opposite tack from what he’d demanded of Britain for four years: he swore that France would no longer abide by ECJ rulings “if they impugn our sovereignty” and promised a five-year moratorium on family immigration to France. But for the coming hundred or so days before the April election, Pécresse’s only worry is Ciotti’s support, mostly because the others have no identifiable troops or ideas. The Nice MP has become the guardian of the new Zemmour-lite line (the one voters will go to the polls to support), and will guard against any temptation Pécresse might have to revert to a more moderate type.
Will Marine Le Pen, 53, become the victim of the trend she was unable to predict? She staked her third bid for the presidency on “detoxifying” the National Front, which she renamed the National Rally. She softened her image, her slogans, her style. She posted pictures of her beloved cats on her Instagram feed. All this to find herself threatened by a newcomer courting controversies in an enthusiastic riff of the style for which she fired her father, Jean-Marie, from the movement he founded. (Zemmour, who is Jewish and has outraged public opinion by writing that French Jews were protected by Pétain’s Vichy regime, used to visit the old Le Pen in his house outside Paris for long lunches in which they argued politics.) Marine still beats “Le Z” in two key groups, though: women, and the working (or, often, no longer working) classes. Her northern constituency in France’s rust belt, many of whom used to vote for the Communist party a generation ago, are not the type who read Zemmour’s books; a Parisian intellectual, he is alien to them in a way he isn’t in Southern France.
No one from the rest of the field, not the Green, Yannick Jadot, 54 (8.5%), not the neo-Marxist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 70 (8.5%), nor the Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, 62 (4.5%), have the slightest hope. They disagree on ideas, policies, style, and they dislike one another intensely. At this stage, even new entrants on the Left would not break the stalemate, because none could reach common ground.
This year’s election will be a four-person race - two men, two women. It will be fought on the Right. And no one can reliably predict the outcome today. Boring, it is not.