Today’s French presidential election.
Today’s first round of the French presidential election comes at a time of shifting political assumptions, although the line-up of leading candidates looks familiar, with the top 3 candidates this time round all having been in the top 4 last time round, in 2017.
The first round is a ruthless ‘cavalry charge’ where the only thing that matters is coming first or second. Every other candidate, however well they do tomorrow, will be eliminated, leaving them no role in the second round except to offer support for the ‘least worst’ of the top two. Those top two then move into a ‘duel’ campaign where broad coalition-building comes to the fore and which guarantees the winner the legitimacy of an overall majority.
In the days when the system could be relied on to boil the choice down to a broadly left/right one, the first round was seen as a ‘filtering’ process, to establish which party representative had the most support within their various blocks, paving the way for a clear choice between two broad political traditions in the second round. Seven of the ten presidential elections since 1965, under the fifth republic, have delivered this type of left/right choice in the second round. The other three can be seen as untypical – and often the result of very tight margins between the top 3 or 4 candidates. It’s worth noting that in two of those three, it was a Le Pen candidacy that contributed to the ‘upset’.
The 2022 campaign takes place in the context of global crises as well as specific French factors, such as:
- The realignment of the ‘modernising centre-right’ around President Emmanuel Macron in an alliance of market liberalism and some socially progressive elements. This ‘progressive neoliberalism’ seems to have squeezed out support for the ‘Gaullist’ conservatives who formed the core of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in 2007 and are represented this time around by Valerie Pécresse. If Macron can effectively represent corporate interests and promote market reforms to liberalise the French economy, there is little need for another centre-right candidate.
- The continuing rise of the racist, xenophobic right which has made space for the deeply unsavoury candidacy of Eric Zemmour, who outflanks even Marine Le Pen in his ethno-nationalism, pseudo-intellectual hate-speech, openly Islamophobic ‘great replacement’ narrative and inflammatory talk of France being in a state of ‘civil war’. Despite her efforts to present herself as a more ‘respectable’ statesperson, Le Pen must take a big share of responsibility for paving the way for this even more poisonous brand of racist politics. The frightening bottom-line is that the combined polling for Le Pen and Zemmour during this campaign has accounted for around a third of the electorate, compared to Le Pen’s first round score of 21.3% in 2017.
- The collapse of the Socialist Party and the realignment of the left. While other left and green candidates have struggled to achieve more than around 5% each, the most coherent challenge has come from Jean-Luc Mélenchon who is standing for the third time and is the candidate of La France Insoumise (which translates loosely as ‘rebellious’ or ‘unbowed’ France), both a political party and a social movement which aims to create a new popular front of the left. The ‘primaire populaire’ primary which aimed to select a single standard-bearer for a united left didn’t yield a candidate who could command wide enough support to ensure other candidates would stand down, but Mélenchon is by far the most likely candidate to be able to rally the left and greens.
Throughout the campaign, the polls have suggested that the most likely outcome of the first round is a Macron / Le Pen second round contest, exactly the same choice as in 2017. British media coverage has barely acknowledged the other candidates, generally writing off Mélenchon as ‘far left’ or ‘hard left’. But any examination of his programme shows it to be a detailed, coherent, ambitious and costed rescue package, rooted in republican values of equality and democracy. Entitled ‘Another World is Possible’, this ‘Programme for a Common Future’ opens by declaring that the current system has run out of steam and offers a message of unity and solidarity, rejecting the politics of racism, islamophobia and antisemitism.
The programme includes 694 propositions, costing 250 billion Euros and funded by 267 billion Euros of income. Key pledges include:
- Price cuts and price freezes for essential goods. More progressive income tax and corporation tax and limits on dividend payouts. Getting tough on tax evasion, a new wealth tax and revenue from an inheritance tax to be invested in youth training.
- An increase in the national living wage to 1,400 Euros per month and guaranteed free subsistence provision of water, gas and electricity. Eliminate homelessness, build 200,000 homes for rent per year and renovate and insulate 700,000 homes per year.
- Aim for full employment and full employment rights, Re-establish the right to retire at 60 on a full pension. Stronger action on discrimination in employment, housing, education and health.
- Expand public health and social care with 100,000 new health workers and 10,000 more jobs in social care. Reopen the casualty and maternity units which have been closed and build new health centres where they are most needed.
- Free childcare and free school meals using 100% organic food and average class sizes of 19 by 2027.
- A green new deal with major investment in addressing sea pollution, the water supply, the railway network and renewable energy generation. Plan to withdraw from dependence on nuclear power and invest in industrial conversion.
- A ‘green rule’ across all public policy with ambitious carbon reduction targets and an industrial plan. An end to intensive factory farming and low animal welfare standards, a ban on dangerous pesticides and the creation of 300,000 new agricultural jobs.
- A guarantee of 1% of GDP to be spent on arts and culture. Welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. A foreign policy which promotes climate justice, recognises ecocide and guarantees access to global goods such as vaccines.
- A constitutional assembly to develop a new political system, the 6th republic, to bring government closer to citizens and ensure they are sovereign.
The impact of these measures would improve the standard of living of 90% of people in France in a highly redistributive and progressive way, with the greatest proportional benefits going to the poorest and the richest 1% contributing the most.
At the end of the campaign, everything suggests that the Macron / Le Pen scenario is the most likely outcome. But Mélenchon’s support has been growing steadily and he has leapt from 5th to 3rd place and has consistently polled well ahead of all the other green or left candidates. If most of the supporters of the 5 lower-ranked Green, Socialist and Communist candidates decide to support him as the most ‘useful’ vote today he could still break through and take the left into the second round. As in 2017, if those voters decide to wait until after the first round before voting tactically they will lose any chance of having a left / right choice in the second round.
Final polling (Saturday 9 April):
- Macron: 26.0%
- Le Pen: 25.0%
- Mélenchon: 17.5%
- Zemmour: 8.5%
- Pécresse: 8.0%
- Arthaud, Hidalgo, Jadot, Poutou, Roussel combined: 10.0%
If he can qualify for the second round, Mélenchon could map a route to the presidency by attracting the large part of the electorate who believe that the current economic system is incapable of delivering for them and don’t trust Macron to stand up for their interests.
Mélenchon, an MP, former MEP, senator and government minister in the Jospin government between 2000-2002, is a serious and experienced campaigner and a brilliant communicator who has effectively debated all his opponents in public, including those of the far right. He has shown a real understanding of the linked crises affecting the world and is able to present a coherent alternative in a inclusive, popular and optimistic way. He is a committed anti-racist and internationalist while also having an evident pride in France. In a second round against Macron, he could realistically create a majority from all those voters who reject policies of austerity for the poor and want serious change without compromising with xenophobia or ethno-nationalism.
This may not seem like the most likely scenario, but it is not impossible. Election day is the moment the possibility of change becomes real and the hope of real change can build its own momentum.
French elections 2022: Electing a French President (January 2022)
Education and the French presidential election (April 2017)
Educational inequality in France (May 2015)
L’avenir en Commun Mélenchon’s 2022 programme in French