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As we head into the first round of the Presidential election, the French nation is heaving a collective Gallic shrug. Macron lost his neophyte Jupiterian sheen within months of storming to victory five years ago and that was before a pandemic, war, and a bout of nasty inflation burst onto the horizon. But none of his opponents has been able to sustain the unassailable momentum required to depose Emmanuel from his throne. France appears to be voting for “None of the above”. With turnout expected to be low, the first round is likely to increase uncertainty over the outcome of the decisive second round two weeks’ later. We are about to enter a period of increased risk premium for French assets.

The Candidates

On 10th April, France will vote in the first round of the presidential election. Unless one candidate receives an absolute majority, the leading two candidates will progress to the second round, with polling on the 24th April following a tête-à-tête televised debate.

On 7th March the twelve candidates who had passed the minimum threshold of 500 sponsorships to run for election was announced. Amongst these, there are five with a plausible chance of progressing to the second round.

  • Current polling suggests a repeat of 2017: the incumbent centrist Macron (La République En Marche!) is expected to face off against (the slightly softened) nationalist Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) in the second round.
  • But other potential second round candidates include:
    • Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left-wing populist La France Insoumise
    • Eric Zemmour of the far-right Reconquête!
    • Valerie Pécresse of the mainstream centre-right Les Républicains

These last two have popped up as the wild cards of this election. Agent provocateur Zemmour, having previously been the editor of the daily show Face à l’Info and only rumoured to be considering standing in 2019[1], has had his moment in the spotlight since bursting onto the scene in October last year. He was then eclipsed when Les Républicains finally chose Pécresse, with the media and public evidently keen for any new face to join the race. But both these new candidates have seen their momentum wane as election day has approached.

Nobody has captured the heart of the French public, as demonstrated by the decline in those who plan to bother participating in the first round of voting[2]:

The Policies

 At the start of the campaign season in November, the election appeared to revolve around immigration and the public sector. Zemmour focused almost entirely on the former and has positioned himself as tougher than his opponents, calling for ‘immigration zero’ and promising a ‘Ministry of Remigration’ to repatriate immigrants.[3] On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum Mélenchon has paid far less attention to immigration, prioritising his economic policies of guaranteed employment and the cancellation of public sector debts, as well as ecological concerns.[4]

Le Pen has a notorious reputation that stems from her 2017 campaign. Then, she stood on a manifesto primarily composed of “Frexit” and tight border control (including leaving the Schengen Zone) with a maximum of 10,000 immigrants a year.[5] After losing to Macron, she announced a “profound transformation” would be coming to what was then called the Front National.[6] Now, she remains tough on immigration – second only to Zemmour. Yet in spite of her social conservativism, she has moved economically leftward: she concurred with Mélenchon on reducing the retirement age from 62 to 60 and expressed strong environmental concerns.[7]

Macron and Pécresse, although perceived as centre-left and centre-right respectively, are two sides of the same coin. Both call for increasing the retirement age to 65 and cutting 150,000 public sector jobs.[8] They also agree on the need to ‘control’ immigration but reject stopping it completely.[9] Pécresse has criticised Macron’s fiscal competence and is moderately harsher on immigration. Macron nevertheless holds the advantage: former Prime Minister Raffarin and former Budget Minister Bouchart of Les Républicains have both endorsed him.[10] Ex-President Sarkozy has also not endorsed his party’s own choice of Pécresse as rumours circulate he has been courted by Macron.[11]

The Campaign

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the course of the election campaign.

  • Macron has exercised his powers as the serving Head of State, pitching himself as the conduit between the West and Russia, engaging in numerous discussions directly with Putin.
  • Le Pen has had to distance herself rapidly from her previous position of sympathy to Russia, ordering 1.2 million election leaflets showing her with Putin to be pulped[12].
  • She is not the only candidate to have to row back: Mélenchon and especially Zemmour have expressed views sympathetic to Russia in the past.[13] All the candidates have since condemned the conflict and Russia’s actions, with Zemmour slamming the invasion as ‘unjustifiable’. He had previously said that Russia’s concerns over NATO expansion are legitimate – this may come back to haunt him[14], as his support has dropped four points since the invasion. Mélenchon presents himself as a pacifist: he welcomes refugees while also refusing to give Ukraine military aid and seeks to exit NATO, as do Zemmour and Le Pen.[15] The latter, whilst opposing the war, rejects sanctions that will increase the cost of living for France.[16]
  • Pécresse has positioned herself as critical of Russia[17], and has called for all companies able to leave to do so.[18]

 

The Stats

According to the Politico Poll of Polls[19], Macron is expected to top the first round with 28% of the vote, Le Pen coming in second at 20%, then Mélenchon with 15%, and both Pécresse and Zemmour on 10%.

Macron’s support rallied after the Russian invasion of Ukraine but has since plateaued. Not that Le Pen can feel superior. Her support plummeted after the June 2021 regional elections – she had previously been resting just above Macron on 26%. But she has also gained a bump higher as the election moves closer as voters coalesce around the two main choices expected to make it through to the second round. Although Mélenchon has recently seen an increase in predicted vote share, he hasn’t managed to lessen the gap between himself and Le Pen. Both Pécresse and Zemmour have seen general downward trends since the initial spikes following their candidacy announcements.

Macron, amidst geopolitical uncertainty and the “rallying around the flag” effect[20], benefits from his incumbency and, although he has been criticised for refusing to debate his opposition[21], still looks set to win whatever the circumstances. But his margin of victory will be reduced. In the second round in 2017 he gained 66.1% – that’s 8.9% less than 2022 predictions against Le Pen.[22]

What This Means for France

While polls predict Rassemblement National to lose in round two, the French right has won a longterm victory. Should Le Pen make it to the second round, polling suggests the gap between her and Macron has narrowed. Meanwhile Les Républicains have claimed Macron’s manifesto copies that of their candidate Pécresse[23]; and Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and socialist candidate, has echoed the sentiment that Macron has shifted to the right.[24]

French fringe politics is being brought into the mainstream; although Le Pen has tried to water down her far-right image, any hope of this rubbing off on Rassemblement National as a whole is far-fetched. In Guadeloupe, she was met with a protest. Whilst undoubtedly an improvement from her father’s visit in 1987, the insistence of her racism, or at least of her party’s, paint a different picture.[25] Relations inside the party also offer an important insight into its future: Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal recently shifted allegiance to Zemmour. MEP Jérome Rivière also abandoned ship to join Zemmour after Rassemblement National’s ‘traumatic’ losses in the 2021 regional elections.[26] Le Pen’s efforts to win more moderate voters over and ‘detoxifying’ Rassemblement National’s image has, at least in part, enabled the rise of Zemmour and the exodus of party figures.

The war in Ukraine is likely to push politics further to the extremes. It has led to the mass exodus of Ukrainians, two million of whom have arrived in Poland. Poland does not have the infrastructure to support such a huge and sudden influx, and will look to other countries to help. Macron has affirmed his “full solidarity with Poland”[27] and, with his moderate immigration policies, France will likely be welcoming their fair share. Anti-immigration candidates might expect to find their rhetoric more widely received once the Ukrainian contingent has arrived. Equally, the rise in energy prices will continue for as long as sanctions on Russian gas remain in place.[28] This could lead to a very different campaign in 2027, one where the fringe extremist parties find themselves building support at the expense of more moderate positions.

What a Macron Presidency Means for the EU

Whilst no candidate supports leaving the EU or the Euro – not even Le Pen, who ran on a “Frexit” platform in 2017 – Macron is the most stabilising candidate for the Union. There was concern following the departure of Angela Merkel for the stability not just of Germany but of the EU. Macron has remained relatively quiet over what his policies regarding the relationship between France and the EU would be, although there are echoes of his 2017 ideology. He is focused on a European agricultural policy, completing the Schengen reform, and building a “European metaverse” to ensure “cultural and informational independence”.[29] Greater integration, then, remains the focus of his European vision.

In conclusion, Macron is likely to win but with a reduced mandate due to a narrower margin of victory and a lower turnout. In any case his policies have shifted towards that of his likely opponent, Marine Le Pen. Immigration and inflation will dominate his second term in charge, driving political debate further from the centre and towards the extremes. The risk premium on French assets should therefore increase.

 

[1] https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2021/05/04/cnews-depasse-bfm-tv-pour-la-premiere-fois-dans-les-audiences_6079062_3234.html

[2] https://www.politico.eu/article/5-charts-to-help-you-read-the-french-presidential-election/

[3] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/03/22/eric-zemmour-vows-create-remigration-ministry-expel-foreigners/

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/92c1cbff-8853-4c12-a3ae-7aa5d31aa3ef

[5] https://www.lesechos.fr/2017/05/presidentielle-ce-quil-faut-savoir-sur-la-defaite-de-marine-le-pen-167611

[6] https://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2017/05/07/marine-le-pen-annonce-une-transformation-profonde-du-front-national_5123818_4854003.html

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/17/world/europe/france-far-right-environment.html

[8] https://www.ft.com/content/e5e5c836-1ba3-48b8-b8d7-672fb53bd4cc

[9] https://www.wsj.com/articles/macron-proposes-increasing-frances-retirement-age-to-65-11647547654

[10] https://www.politico.eu/article/valerie-pecresse-macron-hard-right-french-election-2022/

[11] https://www.politico.eu/article/valerie-pecresse-macron-hard-right-french-election-2022/

[12] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-elections-le-pen-putin-b2025791.html

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/02/french-far-right-leader-marine-le-pen-forced-to-defend-putin-links

[14] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-european-pals-eat-their-words-marine-le-pen-eric-zemmour-matteo-salvini-milos-zeman-alex-salmond-gerhard-schroder-boris-johnson-jean-luc-melenchon-francois-fillon-viktor-orban/

[15] https://www.lemonde.fr/le-monde-in-english/article/2022/03/08/melenchon-surges-in-the-polls-despite-fiery-remarks-on-ukraine-in-the-past_6116613_5026681.html

[16] https://www.politico.eu/article/marine-le-pen-bounces-back-in-far-right-duel-amid-soaring-energy-prices/

[17] europe1.fr/politique/valerie-pecresse-fustige-les-candidats-qui-ont-defendu-la-russie-4096314

[18] https://www.bfmtv.com/politique/elections/presidentielle/entreprises-francaises-en-russie-pecresse-appelle-au-courage-mais-pense-aussi-aux-salaries_AV-202203280193.html

[19] https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/

[20] https://www.francetvinfo.fr/elections/presidentielle/presidentielle-2022-quel-est-l-impact-de-la-guerre-en-ukraine-sur-les-candidats-dans-les-sondages_5002970.html

[21] https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2022/03/10/election-presidentielle-2022-ne-pas-occulter-le-debat_6116917_3232.html

[22] https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/

[23] https://www.leparisien.fr/elections/presidentielle/presidentielle-apres-la-presentation-du-programme-de-macron-la-droite-raille-un-candidat-photocopieuse-17-03-2022-FTH7MPMHPZCYVHTWW2ZLTYEEGQ.php

[24] https://www.tf1info.fr/politique/presidentielle-il-n-y-a-plus-de-doute-sur-ce-qu-est-emmanuel-macron-il-est-de-droite-juge-anne-hidalgo-2214919.html

[25] https://www.francetvinfo.fr/elections/presidentielle/presidentielle-2022-marine-le-pen-prise-a-partie-a-la-guadeloupe-elle-et-son-equipe-portent-plainte_5047642.html

[26] https://www.ft.com/content/d883f300-5f2e-4bfb-96c7-e9146acfc29f

[27] https://www.france24.com/fr/europe/20211118-pologne-une-centaine-de-migrants-arr%C3%AAt%C3%A9s-%C3%A0-la-fronti%C3%A8re-avec-la-bi%C3%A9lorussie

[28] https://www.france24.com/fr/europe/20220325-l-actu-en-dessin-la-guerre-en-ukraine-accentue-la-hausse-des-prix-de-l-%C3%A9nergie-en-europe

[29] https://www.touteleurope.eu/vie-politique-des-etats-membres/presidentielle-2022-quelles-sont-les-propositions-des-candidats-sur-l-europe/

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