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Previewing the French Presidentielles: A Who’s Who of the Candidates

On the 10th April, the French presidential election begins. This first round will whittle down the candidates to those two with the most votes, who will then proceed to the second, decisive round (24th April), the winner of which will be elected president for a five-year term. The official list of candidates numbers at twelve, and here I will break down who they are, their messages, and their chances in this first round.

The Incumbent President, Emmanuel Macron

When he was elected as the youngest president in French history, Emmanuel Macron was seen as a harbinger of something new in French politics. His resounding defeat of Marine Le Pen in the second round of the 2017 election could easily have been read as a rejection of far-right populism by the electorate, and many saw him as an alternative to the traditional elements of French politics: Gaullism, the Parti socialiste, and the Front national. However, since then his popularity plummeted as it became increasingly obvious that he is just more of the same. Too right-wing for the left and centre, and too moderate for the far-right, he lacks real enthusiastic support. We can argue that his victory in 2017 was opportunistic, capitalising on the decline of traditional parties to win by default so as to prevent the election of Le Pen. This year, Macron is running on a very vague slogan: “avec vous”, literally meaning “with you”. Promising to “improve the daily lives” of French people, he is presenting himself as a unifying force for a nation divided on a number of issues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. However unpopular he may be, it is likely he will proceed to the second round, and may well find himself back in the Elysée Palace for a second term. This is because, just as in 2017, the other candidates aren’t any more promising than he is.

The Far Right Challengers, Marine Le Pen & Eric Zemmour

Let’s start with someone who will be familiar to some: Marine Le Pen. Leader of the Rassemblement national (RN), previously the Front national, Le Pen has sought to make the party more electable by dialling down the openly racist rhetoric and far-right conspiracies of her father, Jean-Marie (who still made it to the second round in 2002). When the major parties were stumbling in 2017, the RN capitalised and she joined Macron in the second round, winning a third of the vote. For this campaign, Le Pen suggests that France will no longer be making a “choice of society” with this election, but rather a “choice of civilisation”. Such apocalyptic words play into fears of Muslim separatism in France (an idea so popular with right-wing voters that Macron flirted with it briefly), and general anti-immigration ideas. Trading on this rhetoric is certainly a good way to win votes from conservative voters, until someone comes along and outdoes you…

That person is Eric Zemmour. Writer turned demagogue, Zemmour has blown Le Pen out of the far-right water. With radical proposals of outlawing ‘non-French’ names, a record of convictions for inciting racial and anti-Muslim hatred, and a defeatist rhetoric preaching French decline, he has proved very popular with far-right voters in France. He has set up a battle between himself and Macron (perhaps forgetting that he needs to get through the first round), accusing him of failing France, of sacrificing the security and identity of the République. Much of this he pins on immigration, suggesting that the arrival of “millions” of immigrants has led directly to the suffering of French citizens. This feeds into his wider belief in the replacement of French life by immigrant cultures and the ‘feminisation’ of French society. Zemmour has become the poster-boy of European far-right populism, hoovering up those unhappy with the somewhat watered-down RN.

The only problem with this wave of far-right fervour that these two are riding, is exactly that. They are both counting on those votes. Although united in a dislike of macronisme, sharing a voter base could be what derails their bids.

The Resurgent Républicains, Valérie Pécresse

There is another possibility in this race: Valérie Pécresse. She is the candidate for Les Républicains, a party built on Gaullism, the French brand of traditional, mainstream politics. Picking up the baton from a long line of Gaullist Presidents, Charles de Gaulle (1958-69), Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), and Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-12), Pécresse is pursuing a similarly centre-right path. She has also looked abroad for her influences, describing herself as “one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel”. Pécresse has identified her four main priorities: spending power, security and justice, immigration, and retirement (https://valeriepecresse.fr/). The first three seem typical of a candidate of her profile, and the last gives us an insight into her targeted voter base: older French citizens who once voted for Chirac and Sarkozy, and who feel disengaged by recent presidents and other candidates. However, there are a few problems for Pécresse. She certainly lacks the charisma and uniqueness to stand out, and her platform does not seem to diverge significantly enough from current policy. Le Pen recently jibed that she was “the most Macronist” of the Républicains candidates. Pécresse will be an interesting one to follow. She is certainly one of the contenders for that second spot in the second round, but seems to lack that special something to really break through.

The major Gauchistes, Anne Hidalgo, Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Anne Hidalgo is the current mayor of Paris and the candidate for the Parti socialiste (PS). Her message is one that looks to the future, “ensemble, changeons l’avenir” (‘together, let’s change the future’). There are certainly a number of issues in France that require such a long-term vision, including the French health system, the climate crisis, education, and social inequality. The worry for Hidalgo is that such a long-term vision will not attract voters and that any long-term policymaking will be threatened by figures like Zemmour who pledge to roll back the policies of former presidents. As seen in the US when Trump reversed legislation on climate and health (only to be countered by Biden), such flip-flopping of policies hamstrings long-term objectives. What’s more is that Hidalgo’s PS has declined since the days of François Mitterrand (president, 1981-1995). The unpopularity of Hollande’s presidency (2012-2017) left a bad taste in the mouths of the French electorate, leaving a Hidalgo victory unlikely.Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a mainstay of French politics. Despite his radical proposals, his effective campaigning has made him the left-wing candidate with the best chance of success. At the centre of his programme is a call for the beginning of the Sixth Republic that will enshrine new rights and governance by referendum in its constitution. This means bringing an end to the Fifth Republic that has been in place since 1958. It is important to place this idea in its context. France has had five republics, each with a new constitution. A new republic is declared when the old one is clearly broken. Napoléon dissolved the First Republic (1792-1804) and declared himself emperor. The Second (1848-52) was replaced by the Second Empire in 1852. The Third (1870-1940) picked up the pieces after the Franco-Prussian War. The Fourth (1946-1958) rebuilt a defeated France. And finally the Fifth (1958-) reformed a government weakened by coalitions and the end of empire. Mélenchon is tapping into this long history of renewal, and is therefore declaring that the current system is broken. His election would bring significant changes to what he sees as a ‘presidential monarchy’, as enshrined in the Fifth Republic, granting more power to Parliament.

The unlikely candidates: centrists, greens, leftists

These are the candidates with little chance of proceeding to the second round, but whose presence in debates and elections raises key interests that remain otherwise obscured or ignored by the mainstream candidates.

Natalie Arthaud represents the Lutte ouvrière (Worker’s Struggle), another name for the Trotskyist Union communiste. Hers is a generally anti-capitalist platform that deals with issues on climate, imperial legacy, and internationalism.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan presents himself as a surprise candidate who could steal victory. He calls for French voters to “choisir la liberté” (‘choose liberty’), chiefly from governments (both French and European). He promises to govern with referendums for the big choices he would make.

Yannick Jadot is the only green candidate at this election, who seeks to “changer la France pour mieux vivre” (‘change France to live better’). His is a programme that will rely on the knowledge of experts to guide his policies on climate change and produce innovative solutions.

Jean Lassalle has been a député in the Assemblée nationale since the seventies (like an MP in the House of Commons). His platform is one that seeks to re-engage citizens in the running of national institutions and protect local producers. He is not confident about his chances, stating at the end of February that Macron will be re-elected because the “financial powers that have taken over our country have already decided that.”

Philippe Poutou is the candidate for the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party) who sees his ‘new’ brand of anticapitalism as the solution to the climate crisis and social inequality, proposing taxation on the mega-rich and campaigning under the slogan “Nos vies valent plus que leurs profits” (‘our lives are worth more than their profits’).

Fabien Roussel completes our list. Once a considerable force in French politics, playing an important role in the Résistance and participating in three governments between 1944-2002, his Parti communiste has declined significantly in the last few decades, presenting no candidate to the last two elections. His declaration of love for France celebrates every aspect of French life, “la France des Jours heureux” (‘the France of happy days’).

Initial suggestions of a united left ticket under one candidate, in order to give this individual a chance against Macron, Le Pen, and the others, failed. This means that there is a very limited chance of a left-wing candidate proceeding to the second round.

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This election is hard to predict. Has France really been bought and paid for, as Lassalle suggests? Will Macron win by default because of the unviability of the other candidates? Whatever the result, France will remain a very divided country. There is not a single candidate whose election would not leave at least half the French population disappointed and disengaged. Where does French politics turn now? Whoever is elected now could well shape the future of French politics. More of the same, a sharp turn to the right, complete renewal, and even ‘Frexit’ are all real possibilities.

By Jared White