French election: Macron soars in the polls amid division on the right and implosion of the left
Far-right candidates have capitalized on anti-immigrant sentiment to garner support
As Russian forces poured across Ukrainian borders on Feb. 24, French President Emmanuel Macron warned in a televised address that the incursion marked "a turning point in the history of Europe and of our country" and would have "profound, lasting consequences for our lives."
With the crisis unfolding less than 2,000 kilometres from Paris, France is entering the final weeks of a presidential election. Macron declared his candidacy on March 3, just over a month before the first-round ballot is set to take place April 10.
In the wake of the largest invasion on European soil in decades, party leaders on both the left and the right condemned the attack.
The war may have forced some candidates to rethink their past admiration of Putin, but the issues that will decide the election are closer to home: financial security, immigration, crime and public safety.
The rise of the right
Although the latest polls suggest the six left-wing candidates will divide the vote and all but hand centrist Macron a second term, it's the right that's a close second: Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour on the far-right and Valérie Pécresse, a cabinet minister in the Republican government of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, on the centre-right.
Pécresse, who calls herself "two-thirds Merkel and one-third Thatcher," grabbed the headlines in January when she vowed to clean the streets of crime with a Kärcher power hose — the exact analogy used by Sarkozy 17 years ago — in an attempt to look tougher than her rivals.
The latest polling numbers from Harris Interactive on March 16:
- Emmanuel Macron: 30%
- Marine Le Pen 19.5%
- Jean-Luc Mélenchon: 13.5%
- Éric Zemmour 11.5%
- Valérie Pécresse: 10.5%
Whereas working class voters have flocked to Le Pen, higher-income conservatives are gravitating toward Zemmour's Reconquête, or Reconquest, party. His uncompromising opposition to immigration appeals to those let down by Le Pen's rebranding. The TV pundit has attracted a large following without closing in on Le Pen, showing there's plenty of room on the right.
"Since opinion polls have existed, we have not had two parties on the far-right ranked so high," said Adrien Broche, a political analyst at Viavoice Polling and Research Institute.
Left parties 'no longer speak to the people'
Both have capitalized on public concerns about the cost of living, crime and calls to protect the French identity.
Those issues enticed Lou, a 50-something photographer who would not share her last name, to swivel to the right.
"I'd always marched with the left," she said at a recent rally for Zemmour. "But I think those values have changed sides and are no longer held by the left. It's been said the left has gone off to the bistro, and no one has heard back from them.
"They no longer speak to the people."
WATCH | How Marine Le Pen gained voters through anti-immigrant sentiment
During the last legislative election, the Socialists were decimated, their seats in the National Assembly plummeting from 295 to 29. The disillusionment of left-leaning voters like Lou is reflected in the polls this time, too, with the six candidates combined polling at less than 25 per cent — the lowest figure seen in decades.
Not one of them is expected to make it to the second round of voting, which, in France, is a runoff between the two top finalists and is held unless someone secures a majority in the first round.
Le Pen's performance, by contrast, has improved with every election.
Rebranding of the National Rally party
This campaign — her third — follows a rebranding of National Rally, a party that now opposes the death penalty and no longer calls for France's exit from the European Union. She's also distanced herself from the party's previous incarnation, led by her father, and denounced its racist and antisemitic origins.
It seems to have worked.
Though the National Front obtained just 14 per cent of the first-round vote under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1988, National Rally won 21 per cent of the first-round vote in 2017, a few percentage points behind Macron.
Le Pen's message on immigration remains the same, but she has found a subtler way of conveying it — at least compared to her counterparts on the far-right.
"What we are experiencing is real dispossession," she said in a speech last month. "We no longer recognize the country we love."
But as Le Pen tries to appeal to more moderate voters, some of her top officials and supporters — including her niece Marion Maréchal — have defected to Zemmour's party.
Reconquête, which means to recapture or take back, pledges even greater immigration cuts and warns regularly of a "great replacement" of the French population by non-Europeans.
It's a language that resonates with Zemmour's far-right base.
Zemmour has 3 convictions for hate speech
"He's for France becoming France again," said Marie, 70, who would not give her last name.
"This is no longer France; we're being invaded culturally. When I see a veiled woman in the street, it bothers me."
Zemmour's campaign speeches warn darkly of immigrants arriving in overwhelming numbers and usurping the fruits of French labour.
"As soon as we're in power, we'll stop taking from the French the billions of euros devoted each year to the reception and maintenance of millions of foreigners who live on our soil," he recently told supporters. "The whole Third World comes to take advantage."
Those comments are restrained in comparison with his past.
They support Zemmour precisely because he says things the others do not dare say; he's successful because he's so radical.- Jean-Yves Camus, political analyst
Convicted three times for hate speech, Zemmour was most recently fined 10,000 euros in January for calling young migrants "murderers" during a debate in September 2020 on CNews, often described as France's Fox News.
His response to the conviction was to call it "ideological and stupid."
But neither the convictions nor the hateful language are likely to discourage Zemmour's supporters.
"They support Zemmour precisely because he says things the others do not dare say," French political analyst Jean-Yves Camus said. "He's successful because he's so radical — and he needs to be radical or he won't distinguish himself from Marine Le Pen.
"The fact that he's been convicted, not only is it not a liability, I would say it's an asset."
The fall of the left
The story of France's left, on the other hand, is one of chronic decline. François Hollande came to power in 2012 amid high hopes of redressing economic injustice and reducing inequality, as he declared the world of finance his "adversary."
But reforms aiming to rein in tax havens for banks had little effect — instead, tax hikes hit middle-class households. He failed to reverse climbing unemployment rates, and labour reforms that made it easier to hire and fire were seen as a surrender to the right, provoking weeks of protests.
"My feeling is that when the left was last in power, it lost touch with the working class and the lower-middle class," said Camus. "It's a terrible, terrible loss."
Such policies and the alienation of progressives have provoked a splintering of the mainstream left and prompted some voters to turn to more radical and fringe parties.
But the Socialists, the Workers' Struggle, the Greens, Communists and Anticapitalists remain divided on everything from France's links with NATO to nuclear energy and the legalization of marijuana.
That makes a coalition even less likely than in 2017, when negotiations broke down between the Socialists and La France Insoumise, or France Unbowed party. Insoumise Leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon went on to lose by less than two percentage points to Le Pen in the first round.
This time, Mélenchon is again behind Le Pen, and again ahead of his rivals on the left, sitting at 12.5 per cent in the latest polls.
His plans to abandon nuclear energy, raise the minimum wage and invest in public transportation and hospitals have hit home with liberal voters. To pay for those plans, he's pledged to increase taxes on the highest earners.
Blandine Weber, a financial aid adviser for low-income families, has supported Mélenchon for a decade.
"For me, it's his pledge to stop leaving the most precarious behind and getting the wealthiest to contribute more," she said. "He says his first measure will be to make sure there will be no more homeless people in the streets. Macron promised that five years ago — and we see what that has come to."
Despite not being an official candidate until last week, Macron has topped the polls for months. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the formerly fiscally conservative leader became an overnight Keynesian, unleashing a major stimulus package and more than 27 billion euros in government-financed salaries for millions of laid-off workers.
With the resumption of economic growth, unemployment rates have plunged to just over seven per cent, the lowest level in close to 15 years.
"Many on the centre-left and centre-right see him as the best option, because he's pro-business and pro-EU," Camus said.
But Macron has yet to shed the moniker "president of the rich," a label he inherited when he axed the ISF, or "solidarity tax on wealth," and replaced it with a narrower levy on property, amounting to a considerable tax cut for the country's wealthiest.
Yet he has assuaged much of the middle class with tax breaks and job creation schemes. His government has reduced class sizes in schools in low-income areas and boosted the salaries of health-care and social workers.
For some, such moves are too little too late. The salaries of nurses and social workers remain modest, and a number of the jobs created in recent months are part-time, short-term or otherwise precarious.
But if the incumbent is saddled with a reputation for being aloof and disconnected, the divided opposition has failed to capitalize on it.
The variety of candidates and ideas, and the ability of tiny parties to take part on the national stage, signal a robust democracy in action.
But the traditional left and right parties have left voters disenchanted with their respective spells in government, pushing some voters in search of extremes, and creating a vacuum in the centre, for a candidate who described himself as "neither left nor right."
Macron is often accused of making decisions unilaterally and is seen as removed from the concerns of regular people. He seldom incites the passion people express for more marginal candidates.
But in his speeches and interviews — as an incumbent who has yet to genuinely campaign — he is on a mission to convince voters that he's ushered them through a pandemic, averted economic crisis and will help steer Europe clear of a wider war.
They seem to be listening.