The Final Countdown in France

“Emmanuel Macron more or less won, because he did not lose.”—Frédéric Dabi, adjunct director of Ifop polling institute, following the May 3 presidential debate between centrist Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) and far-right Marine Le Pen (National Front)

May 7, Decision Day

If French polls are as accurate for the second round as they were for the first, Emmanuel Macron will become the next president of France with approximately 61 percent of the vote, and Marine Le Pen will receive 39 percent of the vote. Voter turnout should be around 75 percent.

Although a 20 percent point spread in the polls seems insurmountable, there are some troubling signs. Macron’s self-inflicted political stumbles following his first-round victory caused his popularity to drop by several percentage points. And despite the French political establishment calling on voters to support Macron, there is a general frustration among the electorate with their choice of candidates. Described as “ni, ni” (“neither, nor”) voters, a high voter abstention rate would cause the 20-point margin to narrow considerably. Moreover, a vote against Le Pen is not an affirmative vote for Macron. For example, the far-left candidate refused to openly support Macron even though he has encouraged his voters to oppose Le Pen, which translates into encouraging his supporters to cast a blank ballot. The thinner the margin of victory for Macron is, the thinner Macron’s legitimacy to govern France becomes.

An Election Marked by Anger and Bitterness

This French presidential election has been marked by firsts: the first time in the Fifth Republic that a sitting president did not seek a second mandate; the first time there were 11 candidates running for president; the first time that no candidate emerged from the two traditional parties; and the first time that a televised final presidential debate contained so much anger, disdain, and disgust (mostly expressed by Marine Le Pen toward Macron). Their unprecedented debate clash was not only a reflection of the candidates’ aversion to each other, but also of the deep divisions within France on the economy, immigration, and the future of Europe. French politics are not usually dominated by a war of words and personal insults but are more policy-focused discussions on the future direction of the country. Both candidates constantly interrupted each other: Le Pen breezily asserted that exiting the eurozone would have no effect on people’s daily lives. Macron gave overly detailed policy prescriptions and returned some jabs. The debate marked a low point in a tumultuous campaign. Le Pen needed a daring gamble and decided to unleash the nationalistic furies of anger. Macron needed to demonstrate that a never-before-elected, 39-year old can govern the country. One appealed to emotion and frustration; the other to reason. We will see which view will prevail.

Key Takeaways from an Unprecedented Presidential Race

This is not 2002 when Jacques Chirac faced Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father). A massive “republican front” formed against Le Pen, and Chirac received 82 percent of the vote thanks to the rallying of voters across the political spectrum who were shocked that such an extreme party went so far in a presidential contest.

Today’s National Front party is an established political force in France that has become popular among young people (from approximately 18 percent of 18- to 24-year-old voters in 2002 to close to 30 percent in 2017). The party has strengthened its grassroots voter base by adopting a populist, protectionist economic message. The 2008 financial crisis and 2015 European migration crisis made the party’s anti-immigration and populist messages appear particularly prescient and politically potent to a disoriented electorate. Marine Le Pen’s repeated attempts to cleanse the party of its anti-Semitic and xenophobic tendencies have been somewhat successful, although the recently appointed party leader had to step down immediately after reports uncovered past offending and Holocaust-denying comments. Interestingly, in 2002, Chirac refused to debate with Jean-Marie Le Pen to avoid politically legitimizing both the candidate and the party. Fifteen years later, Macron stated that he “must debate with the National Front” even if “we get down in the mud” to “deconstruct its political proposals,” in recognition that the National Front is a force to reckon with and that suppressing its views only increases its antiestablishment appeal.

Fake News and Russian Influence: A Story to Watch . Two hours before the presidential debate, an online, English-language forum account seemingly originating from Latvia produced “leaked documents” (grossly photoshopped) that alleged that Macron had a secret bank account from a company linked to a bank in the Caribbean. During the debate, Le Pen also suggested that Macron could have an offshore account in the Bahamas. Was this an attempt to sway voters away from Macron? What were the sources for the alleged leaked documents? Macron has now filed a defamation and forgery lawsuit against persons unknown in response to what he called a disinformation campaign.

The Future Governing of France and of Europe . Should Macron win the presidency, it is unclear how he will be able to govern. The French system makes it very hard to enact important policies without a governing majority in the National Assembly (the main parliamentary body), the composition of which will be decided during the legislative elections on June 11 and 18. Macron’s political movement has been fielding candidates, and he will need to attract and rally powerful local figures from across the political spectrum under his leadership. A recent poll for the legislative elections shows Macron’s En Marche! winning an extraordinary 249 to 286 seats in Parliament (out of 577), while 200 to 210 seats would go to the right-wing party, and a devastating 28 to 46 seats to the Socialists. Le Pen’s party could win 15 to 25 seats (they currently have two seats). Macron would need support from either the left or the right of the traditional political spectrum to enact the many reforms he has promised. But will these traditional parties support him and, by doing so, harm their own political party interests?

A Political Tectonic Shift . The obvious bears repeating. France is experiencing a massive political reconfiguration. The center-left has been destroyed; the extreme right and left parties are rising; and a new, untested centrist movement could seize power for the next five years. For the past eight years, Europe’s periphery has experienced political trauma. This fundamental political realignment is now taking place within Europe’s core, with deep and lasting implications for the governability of France and the stability of Europe. We are watching history unfold.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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