Macron Places First, But Le Pen Is Stronger Than Ever

Takeaways from the first presidential voting round in France.

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron delivers a televised address from the Elysée Palace in Paris, February 24 (Elysée/Soazig de La Moissonnière)

This year’s French presidential election will be a rematch of the last. According to exit polls, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have won the first voting round and will advance to the second in two weeks.

Ipsos and Sopra Steria give the incumbent 28 percent support and the far-right Le Pen 23 percent. The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon would place third with 22 percent. The other candidates are in single digits.

Macron defeated Le Pen with 66 to her 34 percent in the 2017 election. Polls suggest this year’s runoff will be tighter.

Here are my takeaways from the first voting round.

Macron did… okay

28 percent is a little more than the surveys gave him. It’s also more than the 24 percent he got in the opening round of the 2017 election.

I argued in a column for EUobserver this week that one in four French voters have been loyal to Macron, because he delivered for them. He deregulated businesses and public transport, liberalized labor law, enrolled freelancers in unemployment insurance and made France a leader again in Europe. His priorities for a second term — climate, energy, EU defense, pensions — match theirs.

But not necessarily the rest of the country’s. Outside the city centers and prosperous towns where Macron’s middle- and upperclass supporters live, French voters are struggling to make ends meet. Macron’s promise of a one-time, €6,000 cheque to cope with inflation feels like an afterthought. It doesn’t help that both the left and far right have incessantly portrayed Macron as a “president of the rich” for five yeas.

Le Pen is stronger than ever

Éric Zemmour made her seem reasonable by comparison. Their policies aren’t radically different. Both would end family reunifications, give the native French priority in employment and social housing, process asylum applications abroad and restore mandatory minimum prison sentences. Little wonder that Zemmour, who is projected to win 7 percent, endorsed Le Pen on Sunday night.

Unlike Zemmour, Le Pen toned down her anti-EU and pro-Putin rhetoric. Unlike Macron, she campaigned on the ground in the towns and blamed his “out of touch” administration for the rising cost of living.

Only one poll has put Le Pen ahead of Macron, and only by 1 percent. But all the surveys are tight, giving Macron 51 to 54 percent against 46 to 49 for Le Pen. She seems to be acceptable to a larger share of remaining Republican voters than last time.

Gaullists picked the wrong candidate, again

That’s not only because Le Pen has softened her image; Macron has also eaten into the Republican party from the other end. Many of its center-right members have joined his liberal The Republic on the Move. The remaining social conservatives have more in common with Le Pen and even Zemmour.

Valérie Pécresse’s projected 5 percent is still a blow. She had been polling as high as 15 percent. Republicans made the mistake of choosing her over Xavier Bertrand, the everyday-man governor of Hauts-de-France, who was the only center-right candidate who polled within striking distance of Macron.

It’s the second time Republicans didn’t nominate their best candidate. In 2017, they chose the socially conservative and Putin-friendly François Fillon over the statesman Alain Juppé. (Here is my story from 2016 about why Juppé was the better candidate, and, no, I’m not over it.) Fillon turned out to be corrupt (he went to work for a Russian petrochemical company after being convicted of fraud) and was the first presidential candidate of the party founded by Charles de Gaulle who didn’t make the runoff.

Republicans did better in last year’s regional elections. They should do fine in the National Assembly elections in June. Macron, whose party is weak at the grassroots, will probably need the Republicans for a majority. It may be time to take the relationship to the next level and merge.

The left is in disarray

The only consolidation for the Republicans is that the old left is doing even worse. Anne Hidalgo, the candidate of the once-mighty Socialist Party, is projected to place behind the Communist, Fabien Roussel, with under 2 percent. Green party candidate Yannick Jadot would barely muster 5 percent, which is the cutoff for public campaign funding.

The French Socialists made the same mistakes as center-left parties elsewhere:

  1. They refused to take the concerns of their working-class supporters about deindustrialization and immigration seriously. Many went to the far right.
  2. They failed to articulate an optimistic vision of the future that could appeal to middle-class voters (who in France switched to Macron) and voters of color (who in France seldom vote at all).

Social democrats in Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Spain and most recently Germany figured out ways to get back into power. But they didn’t have to take it from a pro-European, socially progressive liberal with a €50 billion green-energy plan. The French Socialists have themselves to blame for creating a space for Macron, but so long as he’s there they can’t recover.

The far left now holds the balance

The Socialists lost half their voters to Macron and the other half to a seventy year-old former Trotskyist who wants to leave NATO, lower the pension age, raise taxes and (re)nationalize… many things.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s projected 22 percent matches the support he got in 2017, but it’s more than the polls had given him. Many Green and Socialist Party voters appear to have flocked to him in a last-ditch attempt to keep Le Pen out of the second voting round. Now they have to decide if Le Pen is worse than the neoliberal Macron.

Mélenchon thinks so. He has urged his supporters not to vote for her. (He won’t go so far as to endorse Macron.) A snap Ipsos poll suggests a third will listen to him. Another third would back Le Pen and another third would stay home. If they do, and Hidalgo’s and Jadot’s voters go to Macron, but Pécresse’s and Zemmour’s to Le Pen, it would put the two finalists neck and neck.

Zemmour was a hype

Zemmour’s projected 7 percent is a disappointment to him and his supporters. For a few brief moments during the campaign, he had polled in third place with around 15 percent.

It’s also a repudiation of the wave of national and international media attention the man generated when he announced his candidacy at the end of last year. Zemmour was never likely to make the runoff, let alone win, yet he made more headlines than Mélenchon, who could now be the decisive factor, and even Le Pen, who could actually win.