European Waves

French Elections 2022: What do they mean for Europe?

France’s presidential elections kept Europeans in suspense this April. Here, Paulina Frank and Catherine Wood analyse the results and what President Macron’s victory means for France and Europe.

 France, April 10, 2022. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY/File Photo

No other election has kept Europe in suspense as much as the 2022 presidential election in France. In the first round of voting on 10 April 2022, none of the candidates managed to win an absolute majority of the votes. Therefore, a run-off election on 24 April 2022 decided whether President Emmanuel Macron would remain in office or his right-wing populist challenger Marine Le Pen would enter the Élysée Palace. Macron won the presidential race with around 58.5% of the valid votes and will thus be President of France again for the next 5 years. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, won 41.5% of the electorate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the representative of a left-wing populist electoral alliance with his movement La France Insoumise (LFI), came third in the first round with 22% of the vote. Around 28% of eligible voters decided against casting their ballots, a new record low.

The results in context

As in 2017, Emmanuel Macron (Renaissance) and Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement Nationale/RN) faced each other in another run-off election, more or less a symbolic sign of France’s social divide. While Le Pen campaigned for months for her presidential candidacy, Macron announced his candidacy for a second term only one day before the deadline for the 2022 presidential election. 

The 2022 election campaign differed in some respects from previous election campaigns. 

On the one hand, a particularly large number of candidates were allowed this time, which brought significant successes to the extreme political currents. Éric Zemmour, for instance, with his far-right party Reconquête, founded in 2021, managed to dominate the media debate in the run-up to the election. One particularly important structural development can be seen especially well in this election. The old established parties, which had dominated the party system of the French Republic since the late 1950s, continue to lose influence. The increasing social individualisation and differentiation, and the associated dissolution of the social milieus that supported the political parties also characterizes France, like many other Western European countries. Macron, who continues to view globalisation as an opportunity, is seen as a contemporary replacement for the Socialists and Gaullists.

“Ni Macron, Ni Le Pen!”

Many young people aged 18 to 24, in particular feel neither Macron nor Le Pen represent them on issues such as climate protection and social equality. With the slogan “Ni Macron, ni Le Pen”, they are giving vent to their displeasure, and abstaining from the elections for the most part. In the first round of voting, around 25% of students abstained, and even more so in the second round. 

According to an Ipsos poll after the first round, abstention was 46% among 25-34 year olds and 42% among 18-24 year olds. A clear protest to the political leadership of the country. 

Another reason for the anger of the young people is that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who promotes climate protection and social equality, did not make it to the second round. The LFI candidate is a big success among the 18 to 24 year-olds who supported him with 31%. Young people blame this mainly on older people who would have voted for Macron, leaving young people in France with their concerns by the wayside. 

Many of the candidates who were eliminated in the first round and who did not belong to the right-wing spectrum called on their electorate to vote for Macron in the second round simply to prevent Le Pen and not to allow her to win. Although one could have assumed that young people would decide to vote in the second round for the simple reason of preventing Le Pen from becoming the far-right president, they held back there as well. 

One specific criticism was that Macron and his government had done little to nothing to counter the spread of far-right ideas in the media and in public discourse in recent years, and that politicians like Le Pen and Zemmour have thus gained a stronger audience. Moreover, he had not given enough attention to environmental issues, education policy and the precarious situation of students. However, to equate Macron with Le Pen’s programme, which is partly racist and partly a threat to the rule of law, is at best un-European, and at worst, ignorant and a serious threat to the community of values of the European Union. 

One of the many arguments put forward by young people was why they, of all citizens, should prevent an extreme right in the presidential palace by voting for the one who fired it up. According to their logic, the better Macron did in the second round, the more legitimate he would feel, and young people in France in particular do not concede him this triumph.

Despite all the justified criticism, the students displayed a very undemocratic understanding of the rule of law which, in the worst case, would have been a door opener for politicians like Le Pen. Abstention from voting is not only an expression of dissatisfaction but also plays into the hands of other parties. To put it briefly, abstention is an attitude, and a very undemocratic one at that.

Legislative elections on the horizon

Before President Macron has time to enjoy his victory and begin his second term, the French are already preparing for another round of elections. On 12 and 19 June, voters will go to the polls yet again for the legislative elections to elect all 577 members of its lower house. While Macron’s party is favoured to win a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, he is facing mounting opposition from both sides.

On Wednesday, a group of left-wing parties agreed to form an alliance ahead of the June elections, aimed at pushing Macron to the left and beating the far right. This broad association includes four parties—the Socialist Party (PS), the Greens, the Communist Party (PCF), and Melenchon’s LFI—and hopes to win a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, which would give Melenchon the chance to be ‘elected’ prime minister. If successful, this would be a historic victory for the French left, which has struggled in recent years, and would signal a backlash against Macron’s policies, such as raising the retirement age and changes to social security.

Meanwhile, on the far right, Reconquête’s Zemmour has proposed a similar alliance with Le Pen and the RN. But this is not likely to be supported by Le Pen, who feels that those who left her party to support Zemmour are no longer welcome. For France’s traditional right-wing party Les Républicains (LR), which failed to reach a 5% threshold in the presidential elections with its candidate Valérie Pécresse, the legislative elections present a similar challenge to maintain relevance.

For Macron, these threats from the left and right necessitated a rebrand—his LREM party was renamed Renaissance on Thursday. The party, founded in 2016, also announced a coalition with a centre-right and centrist party in the upcoming elections. Stanislas Guerini, the party’s Executive Officer, said that the new name aimed to show Renaissance’s commitment to choosing ‘enlightenment against obscurantism.’ In his presidential platform, Macron proposed policies including revisions to the Labour Law, reductions in corporate tax, and a decreased reliance on nuclear energy. These policies, and his party’s rebranding, suggest that Macron is trying to position himself and his party as strong, reasonable, and capable of leading France through its challenges, in contrast to extremes on either side.

European implications 

Macron’s victory, and the upcoming legislative elections in France, will have effects beyond the country’s borders. Unlike Le Pen’s euroscepticism and widely criticised ties to Russia, Macron advocates a significant role for the European Union on the world stage, and has played a leading part in the EU and international response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the EU level, Macron would like to create both a budget and a Finance Minister for the eurozone, as well as a defence fund and European Security Council. He will also have another five years to promote his vision of strategic autonomy for the EU, to potentially more willing member states given the renewed Russian threat to Europe. Macron may also wish to emerge as the successor to former German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s role as the EU’s de facto crisis manager.

Macron’s victory in the presidential elections over Le Pen is a victory for his vision of France and Europe, albeit a closer one than five years ago. Whether he will have the support of France’s Assemblée Nationale, or whether France’s united left will succeed in pressuring him from the left, however, remains to be seen.

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