The French presidential election is starting to look like a wipeout. Things can still change before the first round of voting on April 10, but for now President Emmanuel Macron has the biggest polling lead–at 30%–of any presidential candidate since Charles de Gaulle in 1965. He has more support than his two closest challengers combined!
One word: war. Macron is benefiting from the classic “rally ’round the flag” phenomenon (ralliement autour du drapeau in French), which happens in times of crisis. Intense coverage of the war in Ukraine, which naturally favors a head of state, has sucked the oxygen out of the presidential campaign and deprived his rivals of much-needed news coverage.
Let’s take a look at the major candidates.
France’s president has led the polls for months, but his lead has taken a sharp turn upwards in recent weeks. Some of this is due to the aforementioned “rally ‘round the flag” effect, but it goes further than that. He has a strong record on European defense, which is especially prescient at the moment. He is also president of the Council of the European Union (a rotating post), giving him a large role in Europe’s diplomatic efforts to stop the war.
What’s more, Macron has just relaxed France’s hated mask mandate and its requirement to carry a pass vaccinal (Covid health pass). Both moves are popular and have given him a political boost.
The leader of France’s extreme right National Rally party, Le Pen enjoys a cozy relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. She is the only one of Macron’s challengers who has met with Putin, and she has often sung his praises. Could this be because he approved a big loan to her political party in 2014, staving off financial disaster?
Le Pen’s chumminess with Russia’s strongman is not a good look right now and her support has been dropping.
If Le Pen is chummy with Putin, then extreme-right Zémmour of the Reconquest party has a full-blown crush on the guy. He has an extensive record of praising Putin, including a proposal that France enter into a strategic alliance with Russia rather than NATO. And he opposed France accepting Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, until public opinion forced an about-face.
As a talented TV performer, the swing of media attention away from the presidential campaign and towards war coverage has been especially damaging to Zemmour and he has been dropping in the polls.
Leftist Mélenchon of the France Unbowed party has long been hostile to the United States, NATO, and the European Union, and generally favorable to Russia. His desire that France exit both the European Union and NATO, and his frequent statements that Russia would never invade Ukraine, are expected to weaken him.
However, with the political left in disarray—Socialist Hidalgo and Ecologist Jadot are mired in single digits in the polls—leftist voters seem to be still rallying around Mélenchon as their best hope. He’s seen a recent bump in the polls and is now within striking distance of Le Pen and Zemmour.
Pécresse’s campaign is in free-fall. Her conservative Républicain party is split between its centrist wing (increasingly seduced by Macron) and its more extreme wing (which Le Pen and Zemmour are trying to pry away.) A strong candidate might pull these two factions together and mount a solid challenge to Macron, but Pécresse is not that person. She was a compromise candidate after the two leading contenders cancelled each other out in the Républicain party primary.
Pécresse does not carry any Putin-lover baggage, and her political positions are mostly mainstream, but she suffers from an often-fatal flaw in candidates—she’s boring.
France elects its president in two rounds. The top two vote-getters in the first round will square off on April 24 in the second round. At this point, Macron looks like he will be the easy winner of the first round and is expected to beat anyone he faces in the runoff. But who will that be?
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the recently-published An Insider’s Guide to Provence and the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence.