Little Has Changed in French Presidential Race

Eight weeks out from the opening round, Emmanuel Macron remains the favorite.

Elysée Palace Paris France
Elysée Palace in Paris, France, June 1, 2020 (Elysée/Philippe Servent)

The first round of the French presidential election is eight weeks away. (The French vote on Sundays.) It’s not for lack of interest that I haven’t written about it since early December. It’s that so little has changed.

  • Éric Zemmour has split the far-right vote to the detriment of Marine Le Pen.
  • Valérie Pécresse has given the center-right a fighting chance, but not the upset they were hoping for.
  • The left is irrelevant.
  • Emmanuel Macron’s support is stable.

I’ll take those one by one.

Far-right split

Le Pen is in a bind. She spent the last five years softening her party’s imagine in order to appeal to Republican voters, whose support she would need to defeat Macron in a runoff. That opened a space for the Trumpist Zemmour to her right.

To her left, Pécresse has taken strong positions on issues like immigration, public spending and security, giving conservatives less reason to defect.

Le Pen no longer calls for a French exit from the euro or European Union. She wants to take away welfare benefits from immigrant families and deport unemployed noncitizens, but those are actually less radical versions of her previous policies.

Zemmour barely has policies. He has a lot of heated rhetoric that appeals to around 15 percent of French voters.

Le Pen polls a little higher, at 17-18 percent. Together they would have enough support to qualify for the runoff. As it is, the split on the right might allow Pécresse, who is at 15-17 percent, to place second and go up against Macron.

Pécresse’s fighting chance

It may just be enough, but with 15-17 percent support, the center-right is still a shadow of its former self.

Pécresse’s predecessor, François Fillon, got 20 percent support in the first round of the 2017 election. Nicolas Sarkozy got 27 percent in the opening round in 2012.

Pécresse’s dilemma is similar to Le Pen’s: if she veers too far to the right to keep Le Pen-curious voters on board, she risks losing even more centrists and liberals to Macron.

Only one survey has put her ahead of Macron in a hypothetical runoff. Most polls give Pécresse, who governs the region of Paris, 45 to 47 percent against the sitting president. That’s more than Le Pen or Zemmour would manage.

Irrelevant left

The far right may be split, the left is hopelessly divided. Not counting splinter candidates with under 1 percent support, five left-wing candidates are competing in the election.

The Socialists and Greens did well when they teamed up in regional elections last year. They are fielding separate candidates this year: Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, and Yannick Jadot, a former Greenpeace activist. Neither has more than 5 percent support.

Christiane Taubira, a minister in the last Socialist government, aspires to be the left-wing “unity candidate” but would muster barely 4 percent.

Fabien Roussel, the Communist, takes another 3 to 5 percent.

Of the five, the Chavista Jean-Luc Mélenchon polls best with 9 to 10 percent. But his hard-left supporters are also the least persuadable and would likely sit out a second voting round if their man didn’t qualify.

One in four French voters are on the left, but the inability of their parties and leaders to unite has made them irrelevant in this election.

Stable Macron

Macron’s popularity has fluctuated, but always with a floor of around 25 percent. That’s his base: primarily urban, middle- and high-income university graduates. As long as they stick with him (and why shouldn’t they?), he is guaranteed a place in the runoff.

Most left-wing voters would (or should) prefer Macron over a more right-wing alternative. Although left-wing abstentionism may be higher this year than in 2017, since Macron has undertaken many liberal reforms and moved to the right on immigration and security.

If the alternative is Zemmour, around half the center-right’s voters would prefer Macron. Le Pen and Pécresse poll better (underlining how Le Pen has successfully moderated her image), but either woman would struggle to form a majority against the president.

The result may be closer than in 2017, when Macron won a comfortable 66 percent, but all indications are he will win reelection.