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[OPINION] Following COVID-19 and overshadowed by Ukraine: France’s presidential election

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Ali Dinçer*

This Sunday, the French will cast their ballots for the first round of their presidential election, which comes after Emmanuel Macron’s turbulent, five-year-term in office. His leadership has been tested time and again, particularly by the yellow vests movement (gilets jaunes), COVID-19 and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Macron, a centrist, is faced with a variety of rivals from both ends of the political spectrum, the most prominent of which are populists.

Marine Le Pen

A candidate for the National Rally (Rassemblement National) who is a veteran of the French far-right, Marine Le Pen is arguably Macron’s most significant adversary and the most likely candidate to rival him in the second round.

While the latest polls suggest that Le Pen will do better than back in 2017 when she lost to Macron in the second round, she still seems unlikely to take down the incumbent.

After ousting her father, the old-school, right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party in 2015, the daughter Le Pen became a key figure of French right-wing populism with her rhetoric addressed to popular classes unhappy with immigration and dissatisfied with their dwindling purchasing power.

Le Pen promises to lower the VAT on fuel and energy and nationalize the highways to reduce tolls. On immigration, she vows to facilitate the deportation of migrants who are undocumented, under arrest or those who have not worked in France for a year. She also wants to remove birthright citizenship, end family reunification and receive asylum requests abroad.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put Le Pen in an awkward position as she has for years enjoyed close ties to the Kremlin and has been an advocate of Moscow as an ally in the fight against Islamism. While she has refused to condemn Putin’s military actions, she tried to make up for it by adopting a compassionate stance vis-à-vis Ukrainian refugees.

Éric Zemmour

Journalist, essayist and pundit, Éric Zemmour is the ultimate outsider. While some have likened him to Donald Trump, Zemmour’s intellectual background has a decisive influence on his politics.

His slogan, “So that France remains France” (Pour que la France reste la France), represents the stark declinism, a belief that France is not the great cradle of culture and beacon of civilization that it used to be, that dominates his philosophy. It was also illustrated by his candidacy announcement video, a parody of the ending scene of the movie “The King’s Speech,” with subtle references to Charles de Gaulle’s wartime radio speeches out of London.

While Zemmour’s promises are vague on the economic front, on immigration he is much more straightforward. He simply wants to end all regularization procedures for foreigners who have entered the country irregularly, deport foreigners who have not worked for six months and, in a not-so-original one, build a wall at Europe’s external borders. In addition to joining Le Pen in promising to end birthright citizenship and limit family reunification as well as the right to asylum, Zemmour wants to forbid parents to give foreign first names to their children.

Like Marine Le Pen, Zemmour, too, has come under fire for his pro-Russian views. He has been open about his admiration for Vladimir Putin, calling him “respectable” and “a great head of state.” He has advocated a commitment to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

Unlike Le Pen, however, he has opposed welcoming Ukrainian refugees in France. Always the intellectual despite his venture into politics, Zemmour favored consistency by extending his opposition to immigration to Ukrainians equally while Le Pen, a versatile and aged politician, understood that her base did not view these blond and blue-eyed refugees the same way as those emerging from the Mediterranean. Zemmour’s consistency does not appear to bode well for him as he has recently been down in the polls.

He remains unlikely to replace Le Pen as Macron’s rival in the second round. In the event that he does, his radical views make him even unlikelier than Le Pen to ultimately defeat Macron as he would probably mobilize more people in favor of his opponent.

Valérie Pécresse

The “Law and Order” candidate for the center-right Republican Party (Les Républicains), Valérie Pécresse claims she is the only one who can defeat Emmanuel Macron. She has held many government positions in the past, and she famously refers to herself as “part-Thatcher, part-Merkel.”

While her party had the largest electoral base in the 2021 regional elections, her presidential campaign has been visibly weak.

Pécresse promises to lower taxes on energy and raise wages by reducing mandatory deductions. She advocates the creation of a “European Security Council” to represent a unified European voice to weigh in on the situation in Ukraine. Other promises focus on investing in law enforcement and the fight against radicalization.

Instead of removing birthright citizenship altogether, she wants to replace it with one that is subject to level of assimilation to be measured on the basis of one’s linguistic skills as well as respect for and adherence to republican values and principles. She, too, favors making it mandatory to request asylum outside the country.

Pécresse’s most difficult challenge is to make room for herself between the relatively liberal and pro-European center-right embodied by Emmanuel Macron and the new right-wing impetus mobilized by Le Pen and Zemmour. Her chances of making it to the second round seem very slim.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

The leader of Unsubmissive France (La France Insoumise), Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a far-left populist who benefits from a glaring absence of charismatic leaders on the French center-left. His straightforward style and his eloquence have allowed him to gain a certain prominence.

Mélenchon’s promises include freezing the price of basic necessities, raising taxes on wealth and hiring some 130,000 people in the public sector. He advocates a plan to dismantle France’s nuclear industry by 2045, to be replaced entirely by renewables.

Like his far-right counterparts, Mélenchon has also been accused of being too complacent with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He has on the record accused NATO of stoking tensions in Ukraine.

While Mélenchon is the only viable candidate on the left, he does not stand much of a chance of making it to the second round.

The phenomenon of ‘Macronism’

The leader of the Republic on the Move (La République en Marche!), Emmanuel Macron entered France’s political stage as an outsider. He represents the French mainstream’s disillusionment with the classic right-left divide. Yet, the best formula to describe his politics would be not “neither left, nor right” but rather “left and right.” His centrist platform reunites the principles of economic liberalism of the right with some of the social justice and equality issues of the left.

Macron’s image is not all positive. He has been accused of being “arrogant” and “the president of the rich.” That is probably why his campaign is now focused on local town hall meetings and roundtables instead of TV debates with other candidates who have repeatedly challenged him.

Macron’s five-year term has been characterized by three major crises: the yellow jacket movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. It is safe to say that he has succeeded in managing the first two and that he has thus far not made a significant faux pas in his handling of the crisis in Eastern Europe.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has radically changed the framework of this election and brought one criterion above everything else: Is the candidate capable of coping with such serious crises? This is why the fact that Macron’s term in office has been a series of tests of his crisis management skills gives him an incontestable competitive edge. We can also talk about a certain rally-round-the-flag effect since, even though France is not actively involved in the war, most French people realize how high the stakes could potentially be for the entire continent. Plus, the developments in Ukraine brutally overshadowed the rallies and events of Macron’s rivals.

The theme of Macron’s first campaign in the 2017 presidential election was disruption as a way out of the perpetual deadlocks caused by the left-right divide. Now that he is an incumbent candidate campaigning in wartime, his campaign is no more about disrupting but about reassuring and reconciling. The coming days will show whether this will ensure his re-election as commander-in-chief of the European Union’s largest military and only nuclear power.

*Ali Dinçer lives in Belgium and previously worked for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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