French voters will go to the polls to elect their next president in April 2022. The campaign has now started in earnest, with most of the main candidates – incumbent Emmanuel Macron excepted – having officially declared that they are running. Here, the New Statesman presents four questions to keep an eye on ahead of an election whose outcome appears far from determined, four months out.
1. Can Macron’s vaccine passports prevent a lockdown?
When President Macron announced one of the world’s first vaccine passport schemes in July, intended to boost take-up, the explicit contract he offered was freedom for the vaccinated in exchange for coercion of the unvaccinated minority. “Restrictions will be targeted against the unvaccinated rather than against all,” Macron said.
Yet with the Delta variant causing a fifth wave and the simultaneous emergence of the Omicron variant this winter, France has reimposed some restrictions, such as closing nightclubs and banning dancing in bars. These measures still mean France is more open than many other European countries, such as the Netherlands, now in total lockdown, and Germany, where gatherings are to be restricted to 10 people ahead of the New Year.
Even so, the contract Macron announced to his people has not been upheld: the restrictions limit the freedom of the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. In late December, the government tightened measures further, imposing increased home working and limits on large gatherings. If these restrictions do not prove enough and, in the weeks ahead, France is forced back into lockdown or something close to it, Macron’s judgement may be questioned, potentially weakening him ahead of the peak of the campaign in the spring.
Macron remains the front-runner and favourite to win re-election. But with the Covid crisis likely to dominate the debate well into 2022, his handling of it is certain to colour the first months of the campaign.
2. Who will come out on top of the far right?
This summer, the far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour continued to rise in the polls as speculation about his presidential ambitions mounted. A fairly mechanical effect was observed as his poll numbers improved: as he rose, those of his rival Marine Le Pen fell, indicating significant porosity between both candidates’ electorates. That makes sense, given that many of Zemmour’s ideas are arguably more extreme versions of Le Pen’s, particularly on immigration and Islam, though the two candidates differ somewhat on economics.
Some commentators have begun speaking of the competition between the two as a virtual primary of the far right.
The candidates contrast in style and substance. Le Pen is by far the more established of the two. She has spent the last decade at the head of her party (the National Rally, previously the National Front) attempting to present herself as a respectable stateswoman and her party as an acceptable part of the political mainstream. She has distanced herself from her extremist father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has several convictions for Holocaust denial. Her long-term strategy of dédiabolisation has seen anti-Semites, racists and perceived extremists expelled from the party.
By contrast, Zemmour revels in disregarding the norms and decorum of politics. He came to prominence for espousing the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which holds that elites are intentionally engineering a replacement of indigenous European people with non-white immigrants from the developing world. On the anniversary of the November 2015 terrorist attacks, which killed 130 people, Zemmour accused François Hollande, the president at the time, of “preferring that French people die to preventing migrants from coming to France”.
Zemmour’s campaign speeches are peppered with Trump-like attacks against the media and political establishment. “If they despise me, it’s because the despise you,” he told the audience of his first address after officially announcing his candidacy. In November, he was photographed giving the middle finger to a heckler, a loss of temper his rivals seized on to prove the polemicist does not have the temperament for high office.
Whether Le Pen or Zemmour comes out as the leading candidate of the far right – or whether one can line up behind the other – will help decide the future direction of French politics. The stakes are high: if replicated at the election, Le Pen and Zemmour’s current poll numbers combined would be the best result ever for the French far right. Yet if they remain roughly level-pegging and divided, they will both likely miss out on qualifying for the second round.
3. Can the left decide on a unity candidate?
Polls show the broad left the weakest it has been in France’s postwar history. Le Pen, centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, Zemmour and other small right-wing candidates combined are polling around 50 per cent of the vote. Count Macron as a candidate of the centre-right, as he has arguably positioned himself, and the proportion of voters planning to vote for the main right-wing candidates reaches as high as 73 per cent.
The left, represented by Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and a handful of smaller candidates, is accordingly historically weak: only around a quarter of voters plan to cast their vote for a leader on the left. Moreover, their votes are not particularly useful. Because the left is divided among so many candidates, no candidate is close to having a chance of making it to the second round of voting next April based on current numbers.
Hidalgo, languishing in the polls at just 3 per cent, has attempted to revive her moribund campaign by suggesting a primary of the left, which would select a single candidate to represent the broad left. Yet her proposal has been shot down by Jadot and Mélenchon. Complicating the picture is that Christiane Taubira, a well-respected former justice minister under Hollande, has hinted that she may also run.
Without a single unity candidate, the left looks set for a historically poor performance in next year’s poll.
4. Will Pécresse maintain her momentum?
Valérie Pécresse’s surprise win of the nomination of the centre-right Republican party propelled her to front-runner status. The first female candidate of the centre right – and the most credible candidate to be the first woman president of France in over a decade – is seen as the figure most likely to defeat Macron next year.
She has several advantages going into the campaign. That she is a woman may help her position as a moderniser, similarly to Macron’s youth helped him in the 2017 election. The extreme positions taken by her rivals in the Republican primary, such as draconian limits on immigration, meant that she was introduced to voters as a relative moderate, despite her own positions on migration being fairly hard-line.
Pécresse will, however, face some difficulty in distinguishing herself from Macron’s liberal economics and the far-right’s positions on immigration. Whether she can sustain her momentum once the initial sheen of her primary win fades will determine whether Macron’s fears that she could unseat him are justified.