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March 3, 2021

Europe

FRANCE: The Le Pen risk – Part I: Electoral politics

BY Antonio Barroso

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( 5 mins)
  • With around a year to go to the 2022 presidential election, concerns are rising that Marine Le Pen might have a good shot at taking power.
  • This piece provides a (very early) assessment of Le Pen’s electoral chances and other risks associated with next year’s vote.
  • Next week’s piece will focus on the policy risks derived from a hypothetical Le Pen victory.

The first round of the presidential poll will be held on a Sunday between 8 and 23 April (the actual date will be fixed in the coming weeks). If no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first round, then a runoff is held two weeks later between the two candidates with the largest share of the vote. It is highly unlikely that any candidate will win the election in the first round, as voters tend to spread their support among several of the contenders.

First round: Challenging the duopoly

Opinion polls consistently point at runoff between President Emmanuel Macron (polling at around 24%) and Le Pen (26%), which is explained by the traditional parties’ dismal state. On the far left, France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon (polling at 10%) has already announced his intention to run in the election, a strategic decision aimed at forcing other left-wing candidates to rally around him. The move makes it hard for the highly fragmented left to agree on a single candidate that could challenge the Macron-Le Pen duopoly.

Meanwhile, Macron has occupied much of the center-right space by co-opting some of its key figures (e.g., Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire) into government. The recent conviction of Nicolas Sarkozy for corruption has rendered impossible a potential presidential bid of the former president, who remains popular with right-wing voters. As a result, well-known politicians such as Xavier Bertrand, Francois Baroin, or Valerie Pecresse – who are all polling around 12-16% – might try to become the leading candidate of the center-right.

While a Macron-Le Pen runoff remains the base case, the events that preceded the last election suggest caution. It is useful to remember that Macron himself was not considered a frontrunner in the 2017 vote until barely a couple of months before Election Day. His bid was crucially boosted by the revelations of a scandal affecting center-right candidate Francois Fillon. Macron seems to enjoy the support of a core electorate representing around 22% of the vote (per the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections). However, the decline in party identification and the high electoral volatility currently characterizing French politics still leave room for surprises.

In this regard, the main signpost to watch is the emergence of leading candidates on both sides of the spectrum in the second half of this year. On the right, the regional elections taking place in June could see another victory of center-right politician Xavier Bertrand over Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in the Hauts-de-France region. Bertrand is allegedly considering running as an independent. While it is unclear what the main center-right The Republicans (LR) party would do in such a scenario, a surge in Bertrand’s popularity coupled with LR’s backing would pose a serious challenge for Macron.

On the left, the prospects for an agreement on a single presidential bid remain dim. Therefore, the key issue to monitor is whether any potential candidates rise in the polls to the point that they start absorbing votes from others, thus becoming the default leader of the left. Melenchon is the obvious figure to watch; he was less than two percentage points short of overtaking Le Pen in the first round of the 2017 election, and he is a formidable campaigner (we will touch on the policy risks of a potential Melenchon victory in next week’s piece). Another potential candidate is well-known Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, but she might struggle to obtain support outside urban areas.

Second round: To vote or not to vote

In the base case scenario of a Macron-Le Pen second-round contest, the far-right politician is expected to do better than in the 2017 election (where she obtained 33.9% of the vote). A recent opinion poll by Harris Interactive put the difference between both candidates within the margin of error in a potential runoff. However, Le Pen still generates a feeling of rejection among a significant number of voters (60% according to some opinion polls), despite having softened her views on several issues (such as leaving the European Union). And Macron remains a good campaigner; his strong performance in the debate with Le Pen between the two rounds in 2017 smashed any chances of the far-right candidate winning the runoff. Therefore, the president still has a good chance of being re-elected.

The main risk for Macron comes from the potential abstention of the left-wing electorate. Traditionally, left-wing voters have supported whoever the centrist candidate was in a runoff against a far-right politician (e.g., Jacques Chirac vs. Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, Macron vs. Marine Le Pen in 2017). In the last election, Melenchon famously refused to publicly endorse Macron against Le Pen, and there is little reason to believe he would not do the same this time. Moreover, many left-wing voters are frustrated with Macron because they believe the president has tilted excessively towards the right both on economic policy and identity issues.

Striking the right balance between economic and cultural issues represents, in fact, the biggest challenge for Macron. For instance, certain statements by members of the government (such as Home Affairs Minister Gerald Darmanin suggesting Le Pen was “soft” on Islam) might help Macron retain right-wing support, but they also alienate left-wing voters. Playing Le Pen’s own game is unlikely to be fruitful; therefore, a signpost to watch in the coming months is whether the political debate ahead of the election is dominated by identity issues or economics. The latter remains Le Pen’s biggest weakness.

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