A dull campaign, indecision, and tactical voting: The underside of the first round of the French Election

Macron’s bet seems to have already succeeded: establishing himself as a bulwark against the far-right, even if he played a bit of ‘arsonist firefighter’ in this context.

Unsurprisingly, candidate president Emmanuel Macron won the first round of the presidential election. The first results give Macron 28.5%, while Marine Le Pen comes in second with 23.4%. Hence, the second round of the presidential election will be a replica of 2017.

Some experts believe that Le Pen’s progress is due to several factors. She won the votes of those who usually abstain. She also managed to take additional voters from Éric Zemmour after the stumbling of his campaign at the end.

A communication battle

The stats also reflect the communication strategies at play. Macron’s multifaceted strategy consisted of downplaying these elections’ importance and giving the impression that his re-election was a fait accompli. He declared his candidacy late in the game. Macron also tried to avoid any major controversies and not feed his rivals’ campaigns for months. This strategy, which was only affected by the McKinsey affair, still gave him cold sweats in the end.

The war between Russia and Ukraine was a boon for Macron. The latter’s shuttle diplomacy to reduce tensions between the two camps has been widely publicised. This publicity diluted the embarrassment of some of his interactions with Putin and his previous wooing of the Kremlin, in which he invited Putin to discuss a “new architecture security” without coordination with Germany or other EU partners. The invasion of Ukraine also allowed Macron to cultivate his image as a statesman. This media coverage also crushed the airtime reserved for political debates, allowing Macron to dodge any potential embarrassment over some of the most burning issues.

Dangerous liaisons with Moscow

Meanwhile, his rivals have been sullied by their previous dealings with Russia. Controversial candidate Eric Zemmour, who started campaigning early, has long been a threat to Le Pen, even though he obtained only 7.2% in the end. Many doubts still surround his strategy. Some of his detractors claimed that Zemmour was waging a “proxy war” to undermine Marine Le Pen and cannibalize far-right votes.

Zemmour suffered the most from his dangerous liaisons with Moscow. He had praised the Russian president during his campaign just before the war. He also said in December 2021 on France 2: “The problem with Ukraine is not that Russia is threatening an invasion, I don’t believe in it. I’m betting that Russia won’t invade Ukraine”. Given the dramatic developments in Ukraine, voting intentions for Zemmour have since dropped.

Marine Le Pen’s image has also been affected by her association with the Kremlin, although to a lesser degree. In a 2017 interview, she said it would be a triumph for the Kremlin if she became president of France, championing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Her party continues to repay campaign finance debt, lent by a Moscow-based bank. She nevertheless managed to come out unscathed, stay on message, and maintain her momentum.

Watering down the far-right label

Le Pen used Zemmour’s excesses to shed her image as an extremist and present herself as an acceptable candidate after years of being discredited for her far-right affiliation. Let us not forget that Le Pen’s main strategic communications success consisted of rebranding her party from “Front National” to “Rassemblement National” to appeal to more voters from diverse backgrounds.

For long stretches, Le Pen managed to water down the tag of far-right ultra-nationalism and convey the image of a right-wing conservative and nationalist party. However, to further entice Zemmour’s electorate in the final days before the elections, she exposed her bigotry by attacking Muslim women wearing the headscarf, threatening to ban this Muslim practice from the public sphere.

Economic bite

For his part, Jean-Luc Mélenchon fought well until the end. In January, he could barely reach 7.6% of voting intentions. The fact that it came in third place with 22% represents a remarkable jump in the space of a few weeks. His anti-elite populist rhetoric appealed to young voters.

Mélenchon’s discourse mainly focused on issues of interest to ordinary citizens, such as the freezing of fuel prices, early retirement, and amnesty for the yellow vests. He was the only one in the company of Le Pen to talk all the time about subjects that were close to the heart of the working class. His campaign, therefore, benefited from the economic bite. Indeed, the increase in food prices, household expenses (heating, energy), and inflation have given a massive blow to the purchasing power of the French. Mélenchon also benefited from the tactical vote of left-wing voters.

Paradoxically, Macron refused to participate in debates on economic and social issues that affected most French people. He did not make a big campaign, far from it. Some, like the newspaper Les Echos, have labelled it a “UFO campaign”. A single gathering, a handful of trips and no televised debate failed to impress.

Broader political phenomena

Beyond the different communication strategies, this election illustrates broader political phenomena. Voters are no longer attracted to traditional political parties both from the left and right of the political spectrum. Anne Hidalgo’s campaign was a total failure (1.7% of votes), and the Socialist Party is now only a shadow of its former past. Similarly, Valérie Pécresse (4.8% of votes), despite her party being a distant heir of General De Gaulle’s legacy and inheritor of a movement that has brought several presidents to power in the past, suffered a great deal in this campaign. It is a sign of the times that all the major candidates in this election, whether Macron, Le Pen, Mélenchon or Zemmour, did not represent the major established parties. On the contrary, they have built political parties around their respective personalities.

Moreover, no strong political theme has imposed itself during the campaign. The ultranationalist and counter-globalist discourse did not seduce the electorate. Neither did identity issues and ethno-confessional themes propagated by Zemmour. Even global warming, a source of concern for young people, did not boost Yannick Jadot’s chances of winning. One feels that the French are first and foremost concerned about their purchasing power and immediate future.

The rise of the far-right

The rise of the far-right has been a notable phenomenon for some time. The New York Times published an article on April 6 reviewing the background of this surge, demonstrating that what we see today is only the fruit of “years of culture wars waged by racists on TV, social media, and in think tanks.” The article also denotes Zemmour’s role in “driving the French electoral campaign to the far-right by pushing further and further the limits of what was politically acceptable in France.”

Macron also played a role in this development. He has trivialized the discourse of the far-right. Macron did not hesitate to use far-right themes for five years. This situation became evident in 2019 when the head of state spoke in a lengthy interview on the far-right weekly Valeurs Actuelles, ​in which he raised more controversy over the immigration-Islam-identity trilogy. His choice as Interior Minister, namely Darmanin, was also a nod to far-right voters. The latter had multiplied provocative statements.

Darmanin also endorsed certain racist theses of the far-right such as the thesis of the “ensauvagement” [the savagery of part of the population]. Then, racist and Islamophobic writer Michel Houellebecq was decorated with the Legion of Honour in 2019. All this, combined with the law against separatism, voted in February 2021, also signified this shift.

Abstention and indecision

Finally, the other persistent problem is abstention. Although there was not a massive drop in turnout, abstention was higher than in 2017. The perception that Macron is the inevitable winner and the holiday period in France dampened the general interest in the elections. A similar concern is the phenomenon of indecision. Research estimates that 49% of the voters were undecided for 2022 and did not know until the last moment who they were going to vote for (compared to 26% in 2012).

Now the negotiations begin for the second round, which looks like a rematch of 2017. Both sides have already started to refine their strategies and certainly have other cards up their sleeves. Macron’s bet seems to have already succeeded: establishing himself as a bulwark against the far-right, even if he played a bit of “arsonist firefighter” in this context.

This article originally appeared in French in the website TRTfrancais.com

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