French presidential elections: what to expect?

With his presidency hanging in the balance, can Macron cobble together enough votes to see off the threat from the far-right?

On Sunday 24th April, French citizens will head to the polls to cast their vote for the incumbent presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. In comparison to the last round of elections in 2017, polls have predicted much tighter results with 56.5% of the electorate to vote for Emmanuel Macron and 43.5% for Le Pen (Ipsos Sopra/Steria). Ahead of this crucial moment for France and the EU as a whole, what is the impact of these elections and where do both candidates stand on some key priorities?

Neck and neck: The first round

The first round of the elections, held on 10th April, saw incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron leading the exit polls with 27.8% of the votes, ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen who won 23.2% of the vote, and followed by the extreme-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon who won a surprising 22% of the votes.

Neither the traditional centre-right (Les Républicains) nor the traditional centre-left (Parti Socialiste) were able to attain 5% of the vote. By capturing the best talent from the centre-left and centre-right parties in his centrist party La République en Marche (LREM), Macron has made it more difficult for them to put forward new ideas and renew their propositions. After being elected in 2017, many active representatives of the centre-right, centre-left and even green party joined Macron’s ranks to govern alongside him, withdrawing from their own parties. Famously, Minister for the Economy Bruno Le Maire left Les Républicains in 2017 to be part of the LREM government.

Polar opposites

According to the most recent polls, Emmanuel Macron will be re-elected; but, uneven turnout on Sunday could be a decisive factor that gives the rightists the win that they are seeking. While the far-right candidate, Le Pen, has departed from her radical ‘Frexit’ narrative, experts fear she might adopt a ‘Viktor Orbán’ approach to the European Union by questioning some of the fundamentals of the EU. She advocates for a global alliance in which each Member State can choose which rules to follow, handing authority back to national governments and governing through referendums. By putting forward policies prioritising French people’s access to welfare, social, housing and jobs, Le Pen proposes initiatives which would be in direct contradiction with free movement and the supremacy of EU law.

Overall, her victory would result in a great weakening of the EU’s unity, cohesion and strength. The far-right candidate wants drastically to reduce the EU’s decision-making power, to control who gets to travel freely inside the EU, and to withdraw from some of the EU’s trade and energy arrangements such as the EU’s electricity market. Le Pen is also known to have close ties with Putin and has borrowed money from some of his oligarch friends. So, she could veto further sanctions against Russia, and would withdraw from NATO’s obligations.

Le Pen’s ability to be disruptive will also be determined by the June parliamentary elections, in which she would need to secure a majority. If not, she will have to share power with a prime minister from another political party, slowing down her ambitious reforms of the EU.

After a somewhat slow start to his campaign, Macron has recently ramped up his efforts ahead of the second round this Sunday 24th April. But, we should not expect a landslide victory, nor an easy mandate. After 5 years in power, Macron has lost support from a great part of his electorate. Dubbed the ‘president des riches’, his mandate suffered through tumultuous times, including the Gilets Jaunes (the Yellow Vest) movement, which protested against a green tax on fuel judged unjust to lower income populations who depend on cars to work and live. His attempt to tackle the pension system was met with solid resistance, culminating in a month-long nationalised transport strike. The President’s close relationship with the consulting firm McKinsey, as well as their alleged collusion, has also raised suspicions, especially since the image of multinational corporations is particularly negative in France.

According to the Economist, Macron has been successful with his economic policy, as his pro-market labour and regulatory reforms have led to a rebound in employment and created many new businesses by encouraging re-skilling. But, the question of purchasing power will become as central as the COVID-19 crisis and the war in Ukraine as inflation has widened the gap between low and high-income groups.

With expected high levels of abstentions, President Macron may struggle to implement measures to reform France in a second mandate, implying that just a small portion of the people support him and his policies.

Position on the EU and relations with the UK

A stark difference between Macron and Le Pen is their vision of the EU. Le Pen can be considered as a classic euro-sceptic, while Macron is a clear euro-enthusiast. When Le Pen confronted Macron in the recent national televised Grand Débat on the evening of 20th April, she attempted to present the EU as a burden to the sovereignty of the country. In contrast, Macron showcased the EU as the only solution to safeguard Europe’s sovereignty in front of the US and China. He also argued that the EU would be key to strengthen sectors such as agriculture, energy and digital when facing key issues such as food security, climate change and digitalisation.

Both candidates have rather weak relations with the current British government. Emmanuel Macron has maintained a somewhat lukewarm relationship with Boris Johnson, especially since Brexit. France’s relationship with the UK may worsen with Marine Le Pen as her nationalistic stance could get in the way of her diplomatic skills.

Emmanuel Macron is likely to get re-elected on Sunday 24th April. But, his victory will not necessarily deliver a smooth second mandate. The French electorate remains dissatisfied with Macron’s record on many issues such as the green transition and social policy. In comparison to his opponent Marine Le Pen, his re-election will provide a sense of stability in the EU. But, given the high predicted level of abstention, Macron will need to address populist discontent to avoid months-long uprisings and strikes, as he did during his current term.