The replay of the 2017 duel accentuates the political divide in the country, but holds higher risks for Macron as Le Pen adjusts her approach. Two key unknowns: how will Le Pen's past support of Vladimir Putin play out, and what left-wing voters will do?
PARIS — No one wanted the same outcome as the 2017 runoff, but that's exactly what we've got. On top of that, the two finalists of the 2022 presidential election, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, both wound up with higher first-round scores than five years ago.
The strong showings of the two leading candidates came despite the huge number of “utile” votes (tactical voting) garnered by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished third, despite the presence of political newcomer Eric Zemmour collecting a part of the votes from the far-right, and despite the wear and tear of an out-of-the-ordinary, five-year term for the current president.
We must therefore conclude that this rematch slated for April 24 corresponds to a central divide in French political life. An anti-system project on one side, an “anti-everything” in reality, represented by Le Pen, that aims to appear more appealing this time, more focused on working classes and less dangerous economically, while remaining deeply driven by demagogy and isolationism that would eventually lead to the so-called “Frexit," where France withdraws from the European Union. This formula is coupled with the permanent search of scapegoats whose identities vary depending on current events: McKinsey consultants, pharmaceutical labs, immigrants (as per usual), and so on.
On the other side is a pro-European free market project where Macron can count on government representatives from both the left and right, with the traditional center-left Socialist Party virtually disappearing from the map, and the center-right Republicans largely rallying behind the incumbent.
The two faces of France will clash once again
The two faces of France will clash once again, but this time with the risk of seeing Marine Le Pen get closer to the bar of the 50%, which had appeared unimaginable in light of her failed debate between the two voting rounds of 2017.
It should also be unimaginable, given her repeated positions in favor of Vladimir Putin — an alliance with Russia has always been in her program — as well as her irresponsible positions during the COVID-19 crisis on the vaccine, bogus cures and confinement policies.
Ballot papers of Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron displayed on a table.
What will Mélenchon voters do?
And yet. What would happen at the Elysée presidential palace with Marine Le Pen during a pandemic, an economic crisis and today the war closing in on Europe? And what will happen tomorrow when so many other problems arrive that we can't even foresee today?
This stunning rematch will no doubt contribute to accentuating the fault lines of the country, as well as blurring them, as the traditional parties continue to scramble for survival and an explosive cocktail of opposition forces ready to prevent anything from moving forward.
It will be interesting to see what Mélenchon’s supporters on the left decided to do in the second round. (Vote for Macron to avoid a Le Pen victory at all costs? Abstain? Vote for Le Pen out of disgust with Macron's first term?)
In these conditions, reforming the country and anchoring its leadership in a Europe that has finally woken up (an asset for Macron) in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine will be anything but simple — especially in light of the immense environmental challenges we face.
But before that, the current president must succeed in a second round campaign that promises to be harder than the one in 2017, by reaching out more widely, which will be necessary to prevent the cataclysm (of a Le Pen victory), and prepare for the future.