2022: The Year of Le Pen?

52-48 is a rather standard division of the vote share in Western Presidential democracies. In France, François Hollande beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy on that score in 2012. 5 years earlier, Sarkozy had won election 53-47 against Ségolène Royal.

The particularity in 2022 is that this 52-48 division reflects polling data involving incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Their duel is a repeat of the 2017 election, when Macron won two thirds of the vote. At the time, many were baffled that Le Pen’s divisive policies could garner such an important percentage of the electorate. In five short years, she has transformed herself and her party from an opposition contrarian to a genuine contender for the Presidency.

The question on everyone’s mind is now whether she can pull it off, as a Le Pen victory would change virtually everything. Her proposals involve a radical overhaul of established French policies, including and especially regarding the EU. In contrast, Macron has completely shifted from his ‘dynamic newcomer’ identity of 2017 to become the typical establishment figure of this year’s campaign.

But although Le Pen benefits from momentum in the polls and the obvious fact that she does not need to defend her record in government amid a serious cost of living crisis, other reasons her campaign might be optimistic are relatively limited. In the past, Le Pen has often done better than the polls said she would because of the stigma surrounding voting for the far-right. However, there is no indication that we can expect a similar dynamic on 24 April. She has successfully ‘de-toxified’ her party image, presenting herself as much more moderate. In this respect, the extreme proposals of Eric Zemmour did wonders to make Le Pen seem conventional in comparison.

The principal element confusing polling data this year was the vote utile, which played a very important role in the first round; the strategy of voting for the strongest candidate in your political neighbourhood in order to maximise chances of reaching the second round. This led Le Pen and especially Jean-Luc Mélenchon to do better than expected, at the expense of other candidates on the right and left, respectively.

However, this time, there will be no vote utile to benefit Le Pen; the choice facing voters is a binary of two diametrically opposed visions of French society and France’s role in Europe. Every poll gives Macron as the winner, although few predict a Macron victory clear of the margin of error.

The main metric for the 2nd round concerns the voter of this election’s 3rd place candidate: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Only around 420,000 votes separated Mélenchon from Le Pen; this number seems even smaller when one realises that the French Communist Party, which participated in Mélenchon’s electoral alliance in 2017, received slightly over 800,000 votes. Mélenchon very emphatically declared after the results were announced that not a single vote should go to Le Pen, but early polling shows his supporters are relatively evenly split, with 36% not saying who they would vote for or abstaining, 34% supporting Macron, and 30% Le Pen. Either way, we can expect both candidates to heavily court Mélenchon’s voters; Le Pen by doubling down her focus on purchasing power, and Macron by casting himself as the only way to defeat the far-right.

But the fundamental point is this: so far, Macron has hardly been campaigning. Undeniably occupied by the Russian aggression of Ukraine and lulled into a false sense of security by comforting polling data, Macron waited until the very last day he was legally allowed to do so to make his candidacy official. He held a single campaign rally ahead of the first round, and he has not debated or otherwise engaged with any of his competitors, be it on television or elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the fact that French voters could turn on public access television and listen to 11 out of 12 candidates debate their proposals only serves to reinforce the common criticism that Macron is a ‘disconnected elite’.

However, Macron understands that he now needs to radically change strategy and step up campaigning efforts. Meeting and talking to voters has been a major part of his schedule since the first round results were announced, and he has already expressed a willingness to compromise on his most controversial proposal, raising the retirement age to 65. These are signs of a candidate who understands the threat his re-election faces and is willing to make the necessary sacrifices in response.

Most importantly, the famous débat de l’entre-deux tours will take place on 20 April. Macron was already a gifted speaker in 2017, and won that debate convincingly after a terrible showing by Le Pen. He has further honed his oratory skills in the past five years. Le Pen will need to deliver a memorable performance if she wishes to convince French voters that she is the alternative to Macron that so many are after. Perhaps she will, as she truly has skin in the game: a third consecutive failure in a Presidential election may spell the end of her political ambitions.