With the French presidential election just around the corner and campaigns gaining steam, France has been thrust into the limelight. As the fronts harden in the battle for the Élysée and the country is gearing up to vote, the French left finds itself faced with a Catch-22 as it is becoming more and more embroiled in political infighting. While the far-right candidates are pounding out their message and trying to steal each other’s thunder in the lead-up to the election on the 10th of April, the French left is just about managing to keep its head above water.
As the political world turns its attention to the country in Western Europe and campaign trails head toward the finish line, let’s look at how the French voting system works, who the most important candidates are and why the French left is so deeply divided.
How does the French electoral system work?
In order to be allowed to join the ballot and vie for the Élysée Palace, French presidential candidates have to garner 500 signatures (parrainages) from elected officials from at least 30 different French départements, which the Conseil constitutionnel then has to validate. This rule is intended to serve as a measure to rein in fringe candidates and whittle down the number of candidates on offer. This year, would-be candidates had to finish collecting their signatures by the 4thof March. After the contenders get the green light, the government then publishes the official list of presidential candidates (due on the 11th of March this year).
The election itself then uses a two-person runoff system. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round of voting (taking place on the 10th of April), the two frontrunners who received the most votes in the first round go through to face off in a head-to-head second round (taking place on the 24th of April). The candidate who manages to get more than 50 per cent of the overall national vote is elected President for a tenure of 5 years.
The election outcome will not only matter for France but also for the European Union, since France took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU at the start of this year. For six months, France therefore has considerable influence to push forward certain issues – which is why the outcome of the election in April is of utmost importance for the whole of Europe.
Who are the most important contenders vying to unseat Macron and what do they want?
- Jean-Luc Mélenchon, La France insoumise: Mélenchon has already stood for various left-wing groupings since bowing out of the Parti Socialiste in 2008. Mélenchon’s focal points include wanting to grant the right to vote to everyone from the age of 16, introducing compulsory voting, raising the minimum wage to €1.400 net per month, earmarking €200 billion for an ecological transition. Moreover, he suggests abolishing the law that allowed the passe vaccinale, re-employing healthcare workers who were suspended due to not wanting to get vaccinated, extending the deadline for abortion, guaranteeing asylum for refugees and wants to make use of the opt-out regulations of the EU more often. Mélenchon also advocates for the shutdown of power plants.
- Anne Hidalgo, Parti socialiste: The current mayor of Paris is best known for her efforts to reduce the number of cars in the French capital. Focal points in her election programme include wanting to grant the right to vote to everyone from the age of 16, allowing companies that wish to reduce working hours to do so and raising the minimum wage to €1,446 net per month. Moreover, she wants to create a ministry for women’s rights and advocates for a more humane and effective migration policy by reforming the Dublin Regulation and doubling salaries of teachers.
- Yannick Jadot, Écologie les Verts: The former Greenpeace militant and current Member of the European Parliament wants France to pull the plug on its nuclear power plants in the next 20 years and blisteringly criticises Macron’s decision to build up to 14 new nuclear reactors by 2050. Jadot also advocates for banning the sale of diesel and conventional thermal cars from 2030 onwards. Moreover, he vouches for changing the income tax by introducing additional levels for citizens who earn more. Jadot also wants an income guaranteed for everyone over 18.
- Valérie Pécresse, Les Républicains: The first female presidential candidate for the French centre-right and former counsellor to President Jacques Chirac describes herself “one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel” and was just about to become a serious challenger to the incumbent before her campaign suddenly faltered. Marine Le Pen claims that “she has almost exactly the same profile as Emmanuel Macron, and exactly the same positions on a considerable number of issues“, which is partly true since there definitely are overlaps (especially in terms of economic policy) between her and Macron’s programmes. However, despite being considered rather moderate and pro-European, she takes a more radical stance on issues such as immigration: Pécresse wants the parliament to vote on annual immigration quotas and advocates for deporting immigrants who have come to France illegally.
- Marine Le Pen, Rassemblement national: The nationalist Eurosceptic and runner-up to Emmanuel Macron in 2017 peddles an anti-immigration, anti-EU message that seems to appeal to a broad audience, since she is currently polling at around 17%, directly after Macron. Dotted around her programme are ideas like withdrawing France from NATO’s integrated military command, renegotiating the Schengen agreements and re-establishing border controls, exempting under-30s from income tax, letting French people decide by referendum on the migration policy they wish to see applied and promising to halt abuse of the right to asylum. She no longer plans to leave the EU, but intends to prevent the implementation of any European law contrary to the French Constitution.
- Éric Zemmour, Reconquête: Never a man to mince his words, the political journalist and far-right firebrand is known for waspish and provocative comments and has recently hogged the limelight for spurring racial hatred by calling unaccompanied migrant children “murderers” and “rapists” on CNews in September 2020. Zemmour wants to increase salaries by lowering social taxes, does not want to increase the minimum wage, advocates for the expansion of the number of military forces deployed abroad and vouches for the suspension of the Schengen area and the implementation of border control.
If you want to find out more about other candidates from the left and right, you can find more extensive lists containing all of the 12 candidates currently declared here.
Drifting between the left and the right: Emmanuel Macron
Smouldering resentment and mounting criticism over the government’s handling of the pandemic continue to be a real stress test for Macron and have thrown a spanner in the works of his campaign – clearing the way for more right-wing politicians (a phenomenon by no means confined to France only) to thwart his agenda. A vulgar linguistic attack on France’s unvaccinated combined with his government’s efforts to turn the pass sanitaire into the pass vaccinal was met with trenchant criticism.
However, Macron’s diplomatic efforts in the wake of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine have led to surging approval ratings and could increase his re-election chances. The invasion has caused a sharp shift in defence policy within the European Union, prompting member states to want to raise defence spending and military co-operation – something Macron had been recommending for years. The incumbent has also gained support for staying in touch with the Russian president and becoming somewhat of an unofficial spokesperson for Europe, since he is the last European leader that Putin still speaks to. The war in Ukraine may have plunged his campaign into turmoil, but to some extent, the incumbent also benefits from the current crisis.
Right now, it is looking very likely that Emmanuel Macron will be re-elected in April (maybe after a close-fought second round against Marine Le Pen or Valérie Pécresse). But even though the final outcome of the election can obviously not be predicted, one result already seems to be certain: The election is very likely to be a disaster for the once dominant French left.
The race for the Élysée and the deeply divided French left: A doomed race on the road to irrelevance?
While centre-right and far-right politicians are drumming up supporters and are pulling out all the stops in a last-minute scramble for votes, the splintered French left has gotten bogged down in internal squabbles and what has first been dismissed as teething problems has now become a serious problem: Unity seems out of reach for the fragmented French left facing an electorate that is increasingly lurching to the right – which is why the looming election probably won’t pan out according to plan. None of the multiple candidates of the left is currently polling above 12% and the chances of any of them qualifying for the second round are scant.
One of the biggest issues for the French left is that, historically, there has always been a stark political dichotomy between two fractions: On one side of the spectrum, there are the radicals and on the other side, the reformist social-democrats. After the presidency of François Hollande (Parti Socialiste), Macron then completely reshuffled the political landscape in 2017, forged new dynamics and caused even more fragmentation by managing to woo voters who used to vote for the Parti Socialiste (which has been accused of veering increasingly towards the centre and failing to cater to the needs of its working-class electorate). Since the 2017 election, the French left is going through a phase of reorganisation and now, 5 years later, voters are still few and far between.
Right-wing candidates are moreover reaping the results of what has become a windfall for the right and a deathknell for the left: The convergence of party programmes and stark similarities between candidates from the left and their political standpoints have completely torpedoed the campaigns of left candidates and have led to voters veering off to the centre-right and right.
Furthermore, the right and the far-right take up a lot of space in the political and media sphere, with candidates like Zemmour hogging the limelight every day and waspish rhetoric gaining more attention than candidates talking about topics that continually fall by the wayside, e.g global warming and climate protection.
Whether the French left will weather the storm is yet to be seen. One thing, however, is crystal clear: This election should serve as a cautionary tale and should spur the Left to overhaul some of their policies. If not, the French left will gradually fade into the abyss of irrelevance.