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At the Heart of the French Presidential Election by Hélène de Lauzun

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At the Heart of the French Presidential Election

The year 2021 ends with the configuration of the candidacies for the presidential election to be held in the spring almost complete, although there are still some uncertainties.

The current president of the republic has not yet made an official announcement of candidacy, but there is little doubt that he will run for re-election, as evidenced by the long interview he gave on the French television on Wednesday, December 15th, which had all the makings of a campaign entrance.

On the Left, there is no positive dynamic, because no candidate manages to stand out from the crowd. The polls are multiplying and all give catastrophic results: no personality manages to exceed the 10% mark, and most hardly exceed the 5% mark. The Left is used to mocking the Right and its excessive expectations of a ‘man given by God’s Providence to save the nation,’ but it is no better. This is clear if we consider the Left’s desire to seek out Christiane Taubira, former minister of Lionel Jospin and promoter of the legalization of same-sex marriage, as a possible candidate of union and miraculous recourse. The Left is tempted to put her forward to regain the advantage after the fiasco of Anne Hidalgo’s attempt to stand as the candidate. Hidalgo seems unable to garner national support given the continuing revelations on her apocalyptic record as mayor of Paris. The capital of France is even threatened with being placed under trusteeship by the Ministry of Finance because of Anne Hidalgo’s poor management. Christiane Taubira has given hope to left-wing activists who see her as a charismatic figure who can ‘bring people together.’ She announced in a Facebook video on Friday 17th that she wanted to be candidate, but polling indicates she would not exceed 2 to 3% of the votes in the first round.

The apparent ‘disappearance’ of the Left from the French political landscape is in fact not a mystery. Emmanuel Macron is its most obvious heir, resurrecting the Radical Party that was the pride of the French Third Republic. This party, which emerged from the struggles surrounding the Republicans’ conquest of power, dominated French political life for decades around a few simple principles: a militant republicanism associated with the defense of secularism; an ability to embody a form of order and good government; a left-wing discourse with soft social demands, and a propensity to reject the Right in such a way that the Right appeared to be outside of ‘Republican respectability.’ This is exactly the strategy Emmanuel Macron uses, except that progressive societal reforms have come to support the argument of militant secularism that is no longer very fashionable.

Thanks to this strategy, Emmanuel Macron has a solid base of about 23-25% of voters. Macron’s voters are grateful to him for having ‘managed’ the pandemic, and they curiously don’t hold the explosion of public deficits against him. They recognize themselves in a progressive, European discourse and refuse the diagnosis of decline supported by people like Éric Zemmour. This base is made up of urbanites, often college-educated, who are perfectly comfortable with the rules of the game of the globalized economy, and who believe that socio-economic reforms should be France’s first political priority. This electorate includes a significant share of retirees who have appreciated his ability to maintain order—especially at the time of the yellow vest crisis. They also support his policy on the issue of COVID: a vaccine obligation that does not say its name. 

Macron’s LREM party intends to conduct their campaign with the same professionalism that proved itself in 2017. Door-to-door campaigning is one of the keys to its success. These campaigns are extremely well-designed to know exactly what each French person thinks about the president and what their political hopes and expectations are. A web application is provided to the campaigners by the Party with clear arguments to repeat to people that are easy to understand and connect with voters’ daily experiences. This fieldwork can bear fruit and compensate for the weak areas of Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy—most notably a general dislike of his character, which many French people see as arrogant, egocentric, and contemptuous of the people. Macron’s long television interview on Wednesday, December 15th, did not generate much enthusiasm in the country; it was a very long interview, during which the president consistently talked about himself rather than the nation. When asked about his candidacy, he preferred not to answer, arguing that this was not the urgency of the moment. 

For a few days now, social networks have been abuzz repeating a rather odd rumor—French opinion can sometimes be surprisingly swayed by such things. The rumor, which has been encouraged by a freelance journalist, claims that the president’s wife, Brigitte Macron, was born a man, and is thus secretly transgender. This claim has been amplified on Twitter under the hashtag #JeanMichelTrogneux (which, the rumor’s adherents claim, is Brigitte Macron’s real name). The hashtag remained on top of French twitter trends for several days in a row with peaks of several tens of thousands of tweets. The video of the freelance journalist was viewed 450,000 times on YouTube, before being deleted. This madness around Jean-Michel Trogneux is undeniably indicative of a malaise, a French crisis of confidence in the man who represents them.

Facing Emmanuel Macron, the latest polls say three candidates are neck and neck, each representing a different aspect of the French Right: Valérie Pécresse at 17%, Marine Le Pen at 16% and Eric Zemmour between 12 and 15%. These numbers  prove that the game remains extremely open. Today, no one can say who will face Emmanuel Macron in the 2nd round.

In this battle, Valérie Pécresse plays the card of respectability and experience. She can count on the expertise of Patrick Stefanini, an old hand in politics who, among other things, helped Jacques Chirac win in 1995. He leaves nothing to chance, using proven methods, whereas Eric Zemmour prefers to play a disruptive game by exploiting the youth and social networks. Valérie Pécresse travels all over France incessantly without faltering to pick up voters, one by one if necessary. She trusts in the old methods of electoral battle that have always served her side: shaking hands and having drinks in gloomy provincial rooms or getting close to local elected officials. Her argument against Emmanuel Macron is simple: she criticizes his wasteful management of the Covid crisis, which is plunging France into a bottomless deficit. This is the only angle she can choose to distinguish herself from the outgoing president, as she shares his positions on pandemic response. She is not opposed to compulsory vaccination and has even considered on television the possibility of confining the non-vaccinated. 

As for Eric Zemmour, he is gradually settling into the campaign with his new clothes as a candidate, sometimes still showing his polemical habits, as during his participation in Cyril Hanouna’s show “Face à Baba” on Thursday, December 16th, during which he distinguished himself by his sense of repartee and his ability to cross swords with the journalists. The extreme youth of his activists and supporters may have the downside of a lack of professionalism. He has refused (perhaps too entirely) to use the classic recipes for political conquest. Rejecting the status quo may be attractive, but it could turn out too risky to break reject it entirely: Éric Zemmour is not Donald Trump, and France is not the United States. In these choices, the influence of his personal advisor Sarah Knafo is obvious. She has influenced the intellectual character of his run. Often drawing explicitly on French history, this candidate attempts to be eloquent and persuasive, as shown in the report made behind the scenes of his visit to the French in London. However, Éric Zemmour doesn’t always feel at ease in this exercise.  

Marine Le Pen, the third right-wing candidate, is making her own way, confident in her ability to connect with the French people. Unlike Zemmour, she is a master of the springs of a long campaign, but she has not yet proved her ability to mobilize a large electorate come election day. She could use pandemic restrictions as a key issue, but for several weeks she has saying relatively little on the subject, though sending the signal that she understands that many French people oppose draconian restrictions. She has made it clear that she rejects the idea of vaccine passes, and she has argued that mandatory vaccination cannot keep its promises to end the pandemic. She dreams of facing Macron again in the second round, this time being prepared to respond to a candidate who will have a record to defend in 2022 and will no longer have the benefit of the appeal of novelty.

Until a few months ago, the French media believed that the presidential campaign would be a repeat of the 2017 campaign, with a second round that would pit Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen and end with the re-election of Emmanuel Macron. Today, nothing is written in stone, and the fundamentally unpredictable nature of political life gives us hope.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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