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French voters face difficult choice

Barbara Wesel
April 22, 2022

Going into Sunday's winner-takes-all runoff vote, French President Emmanuel Macron is leading several polls. But nationalist Marine Le Pen is not far behind. Both are hoping to woo undecided leftist voters.

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Le Pen (left) or Macron? On Sunday, French voters will decideImage: Arnaud Journois/PHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPP/picture alliance

According to several polling institutes, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is leading his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, by about 10 points. But he is far from safe. The battle for the Elysee Palace will be fought until the very last minute.

There had been much speculation ahead of the only televised debate between the two candidates on Wednesday as to whether Le Pen would deliver as embarrassing a performance as during the last election in 2017. But just as she has polished her public appearances, smoothed out her rhetoric and softened her image over the years, she was much better prepared for the exchange this time around.

Three hours of heated debate

Nearly every subject was broached over the three-hour debate: Social policies, pension reform, Russia and the war in Ukraine, as well as climate change and Islamophobia. As was to be expected, Macron was well prepared and had all the necessary details to hand. He was able to score a number of points against his rival, accusing her of being dependent on Russia because of her party's financial ties with Russian donors.

Macron also countered Le Pen's environmental stance. She has repeatedly said that she wants to dismantle wind turbines, because they disfigure the landscape. Visibly annoyed, Macron asked her where electricity should come from if she is against renewable energy? He criticized her proposals for keeping energy costs down, calling them unfair and impractical.

Macron then took on Le Pen's proposed headscarf ban. He said if this were to happen, France would become the only country in the world to forbid religious symbols in public, adding that it could lead to civil war.

Marine Le Pen shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in 2017
Marine Le Pen has been a fervent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the pastImage: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP/picture alliance

For her part, Le Pen talked about the rise in poverty during Macron's term in office, and focused on her own social projects. She made promises to everybody: Pensioners, people with low wages, students and families, saying they would all have more money thanks to government assistance and tax cuts.

Le Pen's approach aimed to pander to the voters who had cited purchasing power as their biggest concern during the election campaign. On Sunday, some of her supporters might take her claims at face value, and not question her ability to actually finance these benefits.

Macron seen as 'arrogant,' Le Pen remains 'scary'

Macron was the clear winner of the debate, according to 59% of those polled. However, political observers agreed that such clashes are not decisive.

"There's a bit of a myth about those debates, they are hyped up," Ariane Bogain, a politics professor from Northumbria University in the UK, told broadcaster France 24. "But actually, studies show that they are a factor out of many other factors." 

Bogain said Le Pen did not lose the 2017 election because of her disastrous performance in that year's TV debate, but because the impression of her incompetence had been confirmed. Bernard Sananes, president of polling institute Elabe, said after the debate that each candidate had one major weakness: "Emmanuel Macron is considered arrogant by more than one in two viewers. And Marine Le Pen remains scary for half of them."

Le Pen 'honored' to qualify for second round

Macron's biggest problem is his success in crushing France's traditional parties. Five years later, neither the conservatives nor the socialists have recovered from the blow they received.

In the first round of the election on April 10, they scored very poorly and thus there is no reserve of votes for the second round. Artists, trade unionists and also former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy might have called on voters to opt for Macron, but they lack the support.

Both candidates fighting for support from the left

The only significant reserve of votes, almost 22%, lies with the supporters of the veteran leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who almost made it into the second round. Many find the current choice between the same two candidates particularly difficult. "Neither Macron, nor Le Pen" is a slogan that has gained traction, with some students at the Sorbonne University in Paris recently highlighting it on posters.

In his concession speech after the first round, Melenchon said "not one vote" should go to Le Pen — but he did not go so far as to explicitly call on those who had voted for him in the first round to choose Macron in the second.

As a result, many voters are now torn. According to recent polls, only 33% have decided to vote for the incumbent president, while a majority will abstain or vote blank. The leader of Macron's party in parliament, Christophe Castaner, issued this warning earlier this week: "Not to choose, is to accept you are playing Russian roulette."

Students in Paris protest against the two presidential candidates
Many voters, including these students, are opposed to both Macron and Le Pen as presidentImage: picture alliance / abaca

Both Le Pen and Macron are now fighting for the same voters, said Bogain. "There has been a clear shift from Macron towards the left. It makes sense, because his potential reserve of votes are on the left because the Republican right didn't do well," she told France 24. She said this was clear from his proposed pension reforms and environmental policy.

"I think the defining factor is going to be the abstention rate, not just in terms of the level but in terms of who abstains," she said.

Will Macron be able to convince voters with the old idea of a "cordon sanitaire," or barrier, to keep the far right out of government? Will enough left-wing voters bite the bullet and vote for Macron — again? These are the questions that will decide the outcome in Sunday's election.

Far-right ideas behind a more moderate facade

Looking beyond the sociopolitical aspect of Le Pen's proposals to the actual core of her National Rally program, it becomes clear that far-right ideas are still lurking behind her moderate exterior.

If she were elected, many analysts have said it could spell the end for the European Union. Le Pen is diametrically opposed to the bloc with regard to economic policy, migration and recognition of EU law. Her plans are so removed from the prevailing consensus that under her leadership, France — the second-largest EU member state — could trigger the implosion of the bloc.

Emmanuel Macron at a rally in Marseille
Macron has the reputation among voters of being arrogant and distantImage: Laurent Cipriani/AP Photo/picture alliance

Common policy toward Russia and Ukraine would also quickly come to an end, and the military consequences for the future of NATO would be dramatic — France is the only credible military power in Europe. In the TV debate on Wednesday, Le Pen said she wanted to stay in the EU, but wanted to profoundly "modify" it. Macron retorted that he had spent five years trying to change the bloc. However, he pointed out, Europe was a "joint ownership property" and one could not make a single-handed decision "to paint the facade with gloss."

On Sunday, France's voters have a choice between a moderate reformer, who has a decent record for a first term under difficult circumstances but has a sticking reputation for being arrogant and distant from the people, and a politician without any experience in government who wants to take France on a wild ride into nationalist isolationism, the consequences of which are unpredictable.

This is when the croupier at the roulette table would say: "Faites vos jeux, rien ne va plus!"

This article was originally published in German

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