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The April 24 presidential vote in France will be a remake of the 2017 runoff presidential election. An ideal scenario comes true as the incumbent President Emmanuel Macron wins against the second most popular candidate, Marine Le Pen. In 2017, Macron was a new face and fresh young candidate who wanted to “revolutionize” how power is exercised in French politics. He formed La Republique En Marche (LREM), a composition of the two traditional political parties that governed France for 57 years, the parties of socialists and republicans. In 2017, Macron won the election by a landslide victory of 67% against Le Pen.
Same finalists, different context
However, the 2022 race is taking a different direction since the narrative of both finalists in the election has drastically changed, as Macron is no longer the young candidate who jumped into the political arena to change France. This time, he is the incumbent president who needs to defend the record of his first term in office, whereas Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Rally (RN), has been working on her political image to position herself on a credible presidential posture to win this time.
There is an important factor that changed the entire parameters of the 2022 election’s dynamic. It is the emergence of another far-right party, the Reconquete! (Reconquer!), run by Eric Zemmour, whose program is based on xenophobia, anti-immigration and anti-Islam. His rhetoric did play an important role in the demystification of Le Pen and her party in the eyes of a large majority of the French voters, since Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front (the former name of the RN) in 1972.
Macron in his victory speech in May 2017 promised to stop the rise of the far-right party and fight political extremism. On the contrary, five years later, the far-right party has never been stronger; it is making Macron take on a defensive position these days.
The election is taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. These two major events have set the tone of the second round of the election because of their economic impact on French voters.
The lesser of two evils
The April 24 runoff sounds much closer than the 2017 election as national polls are showing a three-point margin win for Macron, but anything could happen before Sunday. Analysts are saying this time French voters are not going to let Macron take their vote for granted, meaning he needs to work hard. The argument of “the lesser of two evils” is no longer valid. As Le Pen is getting Zemmour’s April 10 vote, there is a serious anti-Macron camp in rural France. Some in those regions voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise (LFI).
What is worth mentioning is that one outcome of the first round is the imploding of French traditional political parties that has pushed the youth to distrust these parties, spelling an end to the theoretical classic definition of the political parties. Macron did blow up the Socialist Party (PS) in 2017, and the Republicans (LR) in 2022, when both candidates of the traditional parties did not pass the 5% threshold in the first round.
Students in France, meanwhile, are manifesting their anger against Macron and Le Pen. They judge Macron’s “arrogant” governing style and domestic policies. The case of Macron’s former security chief Alexandre Benalla and the Yellow Vest protests are two reasons for their anger. Macron’s coronavirus policy also created a political dilemma at home.
Le Pen’s qualification to the second round of the election was her best result yet. This time, she was well prepared for the campaign narrative. The French, who are frustrated with COVID-19 measures, high energy prices, the war in Ukraine, a decrease in income and so on, voted for Le Pen’s narrative. Those who did not believe Macron’s microeconomic measures also voted for Le Pen.
However, it’s safe to conclude in the aftermath of the result of the first round that France today is under the peril of the far-right. Le Pen’s increasing her votes is clear proof of it. Besides, Macron, who has espoused a very provocative anti-Islam discourse and made controversial statements on Islam, is about to be reelected. This official French discourse and these actions fed the discourse of national identity and the banalization of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the public space.
In the end, the election comes down to which candidate French voters dislike the least: a president who is largely seen as out of touch with France, or a contender best known for her anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate that Macron, the media and the Parisian elite have done their best to stir up over the last five years.