Five Years Later, French Face Same Contest but Different Odds

On Sunday, April 24, the French people will head to the polls to choose a new president between incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron (La République en Marche) and far-right leader Marine Le Pen (National Rally). On Wednesday, April 20, the two candidates faced off in a wide-ranging debate that offered one last opportunity to present their very different visions of France and Europe to the electorate. Though this contest mirrors the 2017 race, the political situation has changed and the outcome may too. The four days in between will be decisive for France, Europe, and the transatlantic relationship.

Q1: What differentiates the two candidates, and how did they fare in the debate?

A1: Both the personality and the platform of Macron and Le Pen were on display in the debate. Though this is unlikely to shift their core electorates, it may sway left-wing voters who were gauging whether to stay home on Sunday.

The incumbent president offered calm oratory and a (mostly) clear outline of his proposed policies. He avoided the arrogant tone he has been accused of in the past but did meander on some points, wasting an opportunity to give a clear answer to the moderators’ questions on things like retirement age. His platform is one of continuity, though continuity in the pace of change he brought with him in 2017 before half his mandate was derailed by the biggest public health crisis in a century. He made a point of expanding on his climate policies as well as education reforms, a late campaign push to attract left-wing voters who were left without a top pick after the first round. He appeared strongest on foreign policy (understandable given the ongoing war in Ukraine), the climate transition, and his record on reducing unemployment. He also matched Le Pen well on one of her strong points, domestic security. However, his answers to improving purchasing power and reforming pensions may not resonate well with the large electorate that feels dissatisfied with their economic situation.

Le Pen, for her part, improved visibly on her 2017 performance, a debate in which she had fared poorly and which had sealed her fate. This time she reportedly cleared her calendar to prepare for the debate. She was coming into it with a softened image thanks to candidates further to her right, like Eric Zemmour. She was relaxed, came armed with numbers (some of questionable accuracy) on a variety of topics, and succeeded in presenting herself as the voice of the “little people” and the “forgotten.” She started off strong laying out Macron’s economic record and her own proposals to improve French people’s purchasing power. For people dissatisfied with the president’s performance and looking for a reason to support Le Pen, this was her best case.

However, she did not offer a convincing plan for the climate transition, a key concern for many voters. In addition, she showed that her party’s stripes have not changed much on issues like immigration (increasing deportations, reforming asylum laws), religious freedom (prohibiting the hijab in any setting and mixing the issue with radical Islamism), or the European Union (no more shared trade deals or free movement of workers). She likely solidified her base and convinced some economically disaffected voters, but undoubtedly reinforced opposition to her far-right ideas among left-wing, green, and Muslim voters (France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, almost 6 million).

Q2: What issues are most important to the French electorate, and how did the war in Ukraine feature in?

A2: The most pressing issue in this campaign was by far purchasing power, considered the main driver of choice for 58 percent of people. This is why Le Pen has focused her campaign so much on these issues, crisscrossing the country for months. In turn, this hurts Macron with some lower-income voters, who believe he did not do enough for them and perceive him to be the president of the rich; he faces strong feelings of dislike in a large part of the electorate. Many supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who came in third in the first round, are considering staying home on Sunday for this reason.

Immigration, healthcare, environmental issues, and retirement are the next most important issues for voters, with over half of Le Pen supporters focusing on the first one over the others. This is the part of her platform that most closely tracks the National Rally’s historically hardline positions. On economic issues, she has tried to move the party’s economic policies toward more state support and away from the liberalism that characterized it under her father’s leadership. Though this rallies more disaffected far-left voters, it alienates some socially conservative but economically liberal constituencies who will lean toward Macron. The latter offered a clearer path to addressing climate change, but it may be too little too late after five years spent not prioritizing some of the climate pledges he had made in the 2017 campaign.

Finally, despite the war in Ukraine and its impact on purchasing power (rising prices for gas, weight of sanctions), the issue only featured as the eighth most important one for voters. Macron has spent the bulk of the campaign period on diplomatic efforts and discussions with allies, burnishing his foreign policy credentials but limiting his opportunities to address French voters’ economic concerns. Ukraine has simply not impacted the campaign much other than hurting Eric Zemmour’s chances due to his controversial stance on the war. And while that may have given Le Pen some cloud cover, her long-standing closeness with Russian president Vladimir Putin, her party’s loan from a Russian bank in 2014, and her ambivalent position in the run-up to the war shine a negative light on her bona fides as future commander-in-chief.

Q3: Why is France facing a rematch of the 2017 second round between Macron and Le Pen?

A3: The past five years have accelerated the fragmentation of French politics that was first displayed in 2017. Back then, the traditional left- and right-wing parties (Socialist Party and Les Républicains, respectively) were both shut out of the second round: the Socialist candidate scored only 6.5 percent while the Républicains candidate received 20 percent of the vote. Far-left Mélenchon had already reached 19.6 percent, announcing the decline of the united left. (An important caveat is that this dynamic is unfolding at the national level but not so much at the local level, where traditional parties remained deeply rooted.)

This time, the French political landscape is facing a disintegration of the right and reconsolidation around the far right, effectively creating what experts have called a “tripartition” of the space: far left (Mélenchon), far right (Le Pen), and center/center-right leaning (Macron). Younger voters are increasingly leaning further left and right while older and more affluent voters are sticking to the center, pointing to a disaffected youth that has lost a lot of economic power to the benefit of older generations. Le Pen has worked hard for five years to “de-demonize” her image, including presenting herself as a feminist, and is now reaping the benefits—though elements of her party endorsed Zemmour and continue to favor economically liberal policies, more hardline immigration, and an exit from the European Union.

Socialists and Républicains have simply been unable to find a convincing candidate and a clear message for their voting blocs to rally around. Classic economic questions like public spending have hardly featured in the discourse, particularly post-Covid. As a result, Macron has absorbed both parties’ centrist electorates and Le Pen has swallowed right-wing voters. Mélenchon, for his part, has been able to tap into economic resentment and some French voters’ long-standing skepticism toward globalization, free market policies, and the European Union. He has reaped the benefits of a traditional left wing that has been unable to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution and twenty-first-century economic concerns—a fate shared by many socialist parties across Europe.

Though local and regional elections paint a slightly different picture, the long-term impact of this tripartition is an increasingly divided electorate and a complicated path of succession for Macron or whoever wins on Sunday. All three wings are headed by charismatic leaders who have no clear heir. Failure to groom one could presage the same fate as the Socialists and Républicains.

Q4: What is the impact of a Macron victory compared to a Le Pen victory?

A4: Polls currently estimate Macron winning around 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Le Pen, a decent victory by U.S. standards but a far cry from the 66–34 result of 2017. The debate likely gave Macron a slight edge. The “known unknowns” affecting the final results are the decision of Mélenchon voters to stay home or vote, and for whom; turnout, which is currently estimated at 69 percent (compared to 74 percent in 2017); whether Muslim voters’ fear of a Le Pen presidency is enough to drive them to Macron; and the strength of the “republican front” uniting against a far-right candidate.

The result will have clear policy implications. On the domestic front, both candidates aim to spur public investments for a variety of sectors, and both their economic platforms will hinge upon gaining a governing majority in the legislative elections of June 12 and 19. However, a Le Pen presidency will likely reverse many of the competitiveness reforms Macron has implemented over the past five years while increasing public spending through lower taxes and investments in hospitals and the police, among others. Macron’s emphasis will likely remain on continuing those reforms (including raising the retirement age) and boosting entrepreneurship in France, while Le Pen would take steps to re-localize industry and limit imports of foreign goods.

On some of the other important issues to voters, Le Pen will prioritize reforms to lower immigration and toughen rules for asylum seekers while focusing on boosting nuclear energy production domestically. She plans to lower taxes on energy consumption from fossil fuels, elongating France’s timeline to net-zero emissions and jeopardizing the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Macron wants to speed up this timeline and focus on renewables, producing more of this technology in France while exiting fossil fuel consumption. His immigration focus is on protecting European borders and finding an EU-level reform of asylum and economic migration.

From a U.S. perspective, a Le Pen presidency would have the most serious consequences at the European and transatlantic levels. Though Le Pen no longer wants France to leave the European Union, she aims to reverse European integration in free movement, the energy market, and trade—in addition to throttling the Franco-German “policy engine.” As president, her support to illiberal leaders across Europe would embolden them and further democratic backsliding in places like Hungary and Poland. Crucially, she would take France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) integrated command and launch a “strategic rapprochement” between the alliance and Russia once the war in Ukraine is over. At a time when European unity is crucial to fighting multiple crises, from Russia’s aggression to the crisis of faith in democracy, this reversal would impact the European Union’s ability to be a strong partner for the United States. Above all, it would deprive Washington of one of its most capable military allies and push it closer to Russia. (Macron would likely stay the course on keeping EU integration reforms apace and being an active member of NATO, while continuing a push for EU defense.)

Regardless of who wins on Sunday, parts of their platform will depend on what happens in June in the parliamentary elections, for which pollsters face an opaque picture. A Le Pen victory on Sunday could drive more people to vote in June to deprive her of a governing majority, while a Macron win may push Mélenchon voters to show their discontent. A lack of a majority would force Macron to appoint a prime minister from a different party (a situation called “cohabitation”). Le Pen would likely face cohabitation but could still cobble together a coalition for some of her economic policies with left-wing groups. Furthermore, second terms have historically been less fruitful for returning incumbents, impacting Macron’s ambitions for big reforms.

Ultimately, this election will set up the landscape for 2027: Macron, prone to governing alone and with a loose party structure, may not groom a political heir that could keep the centrist mantle, thus reopening the field for the traditional parties. Another Le Pen defeat would also launch a renewed struggle within the right-wing bloc for the next standard-bearer, some of whom will likely conclude that her platform was not extreme enough. However, if she were to win, Europe as a whole would feel the jolt of far-right ideology in one of the largest EU member states, years after transatlantic observers thought the continent had tamed that tiger. In four days’ time, they will know for sure.

Donatienne Ruy is the director of the Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions 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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Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy