The Upcoming Election in France Could Have Profound Consequences for France and the Transatlantic Relationship

Politics in France never fail to entertain. This will certainly hold true this weekend as French voters head to the polls to cast their vote in the presidential election on Sunday. Five years ago, the incumbent, centrist Emmanuel Macron of La Republique En March, defeated Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National – formerly the National Front – in a runoff election in France’s last presidential election.

Rassemblement National Leader Marine Le Pen Surges in Polls

Now, he finds himself once again likely facing Ms. Le Pen as the most likely rival in his race to win a second term as France’s next president as the far-right surges in the polls in the days leading up to the election.

What Do the Polls Say?

According to the most recent poll on the French electorate conducted by Ifop, an international polling and market research firm, Mr. Macron is projected to win 26 percent of the votes in the first round of the election followed by 24 percent of the vote going to Ms. Le Pen. 17 percent of the votes are expected to be cast to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing founder La France Insoumise..

If the polls are correct, Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen will face off in the runoff election. Should that occur, the survey estimates that Mr. Macron would win in a 52-48% split over Ms. Le Pen, in what would be a winning, but stunning reversal from 2017 when Mr. Macron handily defeated Ms. Le Pen by a 66.1-33.9 percent margin.

How Do Elections in France Work?

French elections take place on two Sundays in the election year, spaced out by two weeks. The first round of voting includes all candidates who acquired enough signatures to run in the election. If one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, that candidate is named the next president, a feat that no French presidential candidate has ever achieved.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, then the two candidates with the most votes move to the runoff round of voting, which takes place two weeks after the first round. The winner of that runoff vote then becomes the next president and will take office on May 13.

The Incumbent

After winning the 2017 election, Mr. Macron has proven adept in his position. Forming his own political movement in 2016, he promised to “bring a new style of politics” to France without labeling himself within one of the established parties. Sometimes referred to as “the candidate for the rich,” he has positioned himself as a progressive anti-establishment leader who is a stalwart supporter of the European Union and is able to return France to a position of global leadership. During his time in office, he has attracted voters from both the right and the left. As the war in Ukraine looms large over the election, Mr. Macron’s foreign policy, especially his shuttle diplomacy efforts that involved him darting between Moscow and Kiev to head off an impending invasion, has garnered him domestic and internal support.

Mr. Macron, a centrist, shifted right on several key issues, including immigration and national security, pleasing many of his more conservative supporters. On the other hand, the left reportedly feels deceived by the president’s policies, particularly on the environment, the economy, and Islam in French society. As the election approaches, he has maintained a modest lead ahead of Ms. Le Pen, the far-right, nationalist contender, hoping to retain the loyalty of his right-leaning centrist and left-leaning supporters.

A Shift to the Right

The run up to the election has witnessed the rise of the far right and the very far right. In fact, the far right is in an “historically strong position” as Marine Le Pen is positioned as the most likely candidate on the left or the right to face Mr. Macron in the run-off even though challenger Valerie Pecresse of the centre-right Les Republicains represents about 9 percent of the vote.

As the leader of the nationalist and populist Rassemblement National, Ms. Le Pen represents the traditional array of far-right policy positions, dating back to the days when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ran the party. She maintains hardline views on immigration and Islam. She has an unshakeable admiration of Putin, whom she met in 2017. She offers a skeptical, often hostile, view of the European Union. She also maintains a skeptical view of NATO, arguing in the past that France should withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command.   

Yet, over the course of the election, Ms. Le Pen has revamped her image, leaning on her efforts to “detoxify” her party. These efforts have been largely successful. Throughout the election, Ms. Le Pen has softened her traditional stances, focusing mostly on economic issues as French voters see energy prices and the cost of living, the election’s primary issue, rising. To counter this, she has promised to reduced gas and electricity prices. She has even gone against her traditionally anti-immigrant stance, welcoming Ukrainian refugees in an effort to distance herself from her pro-Putin past. Analysts believe her focus on these issues have helped her in winning over working-class voters that traditionally vote on the left. Her deft evolution in her approach to her candidacy compared to 2017 has allowed her to make considerable gain in the polls.

A Shift Even Further Right

Eric Zemmour is an anti-immigrant, xenophobic, pro-Russian TV pundit who, as head of Reconquête, offers an even further right, more conservative alternative to Ms. Le Pen. In fact, he is seen as even more hardline than Ms. Le Pen, and this fact is quite obvious from his policy stances. The son of Jewish Algerian parents who immigrated to France during the Algerian war of independence, Mr. Zemmour has openly suggested that Islam and France are not compatible and was recently convicted of hate speech.

Mr. Zemmour has consistently called into question Ms. Le Pen’s ability to win the election, trying to plant doubt it the minds of voters on the far right. Yet, this plan has backfired as the war in Ukraine has reminded voters of his support for Mr. Putin, once expressing his wish aloud for a “French Putin.” Yet, by outflanking her on the right – as most onlookers wonder how that could even be possible – Mr. Zemmour’s far right approach has actually boosted Ms. Le Pen in the polls by making her look less extreme in her battle against a centrist Macron.

Where is the Left?

France’s left contains many deep, and continuing to divide, fissures. Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left La France Insoumise is currently leading the field. Rounding out the left is Yanick Jadot, an MEP and leader of the Green party, who prides himself as being a “pragmatic environmentalist” and Fabien Roussel, a journalist and general secretary of the French Communist party. Even the once popular Socialist Party, which has not recovered from the lackluster performance of its last president is polling abysmally as Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris since 2014, is showing only single digit support.

According to the Ifop poll, Mr. Melenchon is in third place among voters, coming in with an anticipated 17 percent of the vote. Mr. Melenchon, who split from the Socialist Party, wants to lower the retirement age to 60, legalize marijuana, and embrace migrants from all over the world. However, his positions on most of the issues prove to be too extreme for most left-leaning voters.

As a result, France’s fractured left is unable to unite behind one candidate to pressure Mr. Macron or Ms. Le Pen in the upcoming election. As the New York Times observes, the “French left has proven chronically split to the point of near political relevance for the first time since the Fifth Republic’s foundation in 1958.” In short, the left of French politics is so fractured, it is almost certain that a left-leaning candidate will not be a viable contender in this election.

A View from the United States

The winner of the upcoming French election matters significantly to the United States. Should Mr. Macron secure a second term in office, not much is expected to change in U.S.-French relations. U.S. President Joe Biden has made it a foreign policy mission to reassure America’s European allies of its staunch support. One dust up threatened to disrupt relations between the close allies last fall when the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia agreed to a nuclear submarine alliance to the detriment of France, who lost out on a lucrative deal to provide Australia with more convention submarines. The misunderstanding between the United States and France seems to have largely subsided. As a result, Mr. Biden is likely to continue deepening U.S.-French ties as a matter of recalibrating U.S. alliances, especially in the wake of the AUKUS excitement last fall.

Mr. Macron’s failure to win a second term will have a profound effect on U.S.-France relations, no matter who wins. There is already concern within the White House about the consequences of a Le Pen. Not only do Ms. Le Pen’s political views conflict significantly with those of Mr. Biden, but she has been an unabashed ally of Mr. Putin and skeptic of the European Union and NATO, two institutions which lie at the center of U.S. foreign policy under the Biden administration. Even if Mr. Mélenchon wins, an increasingly unlikely scenario, then Franco-American ties would take a hit as the far left candidate wants France to leave NATO and is often criticized for a complacent attitude toward Russia.  

The Biden administration fears that having any other candidate in Elysée Palace would be devastating to the transatlantic relationship. This is especially true for the Western coalition fighting Russia in Ukraine. France has played a key role in almost every facet of the conflict, from trying to diplomatically head off an invasion to providing Ukraine with aid and weapons. France under Mr. Macron has proven itself to be a necessary ally in the battle to aid Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion. If Ms. Le Pen or even Mr. Mélenchon were to win the election, the entire U.S.-led coalition would be in question.

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