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Geopolitics

How France's Presidential Election Could Trigger A "Democratic Accident"

After the surprising arrival of Emmanuel Macron five years ago, followed by protest movements, COVID-19 and now Ukraine, a sense of indifference has spread among voters. This could lead to a surprise victory of the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen.

An electoral poster showing Eric Zemmour's head showing from beneath a torn campaign poster of Emmanuel Macron.

Who to choose? And do we care?

Cécile Cornudet

-Analysis-

PARIS — Can we hit "pause" for a second? Put this “boring”, “nonexistent”, “not up to scratch” campaign on hold? If we keep repeating it again and again, we may end up believing it — and if we end up not caring, we may be left with choices we haven't really made. Brexit, anyone?


Candidates are the ones to blame, undeniably. The polls which are “always wrong” or, on the contrary, imply that “everything is decided.” The journalists necessarily blamed for only caring about the controversies. And what about French TV channel TF1, which for the first time will shorten its coverage on the election night for the first round of voting, on April 10th — instead broadcasting French comedy movie, Les Visiteurs, for the umpteenth time. Should we acknowledge the lack of interest, or worse, applaud it? That is up to you.

Rejection of politics

To some extent, we are all part of this movement. But in this “strange” campaign (the most appropriate word to define it, according to French people on a recent opinion poll released by Elabe), people from all walks of life are growing more and more skeptical about politics in general.

If you put employers in a room, they will tell you that “the general interest is the company, we can do without politics.” Listen to trade unionists, they will tell you that it is in their association that they “are changing life” or advancing solidarity.

Young people will assert that small daily actions, or spectacular demonstrations, are the ways to fight “climate inaction.” These comments gathered over the last few days basically say the same thing: there is nothing left to expect from politicians.

In 2017, the “rejection of political classes” was afoot across French society, left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon said. During the primary election, in each party, heads had to be chopped off (electorally speaking), we had to move from traditional parties and from the left-ring split now akin to powerlessness.

Rage has turned into indifference.

There was a rage in this great clean-up, which the newcomer Emmanuel Macron had understood well. He was elected.

Five years later, things have been taken to the next level. Rage has turned into indifference. This is no longer where the action is happening. French people who withdrew into their private sphere have not come out. This campaign is less a part of family dinners than the previous ones (including campaigns where the incumbent seeks another term, always less exciting), time is not suspended in the country, TV channels are losing audience.

Jean-Luc M\u00e9lenchon stands in front of partisans at a meeting in Marseille in March 2022.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Marseille on March 27, 2022

Denis Thaust/SOPA/ZUMA

Risk of violence

Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left create anticipation among their troops, but not much beyond. Last week, the presidential election only ranked sixth among French people's main topics of conversation, according to an Ifop-Paris Match poll: 56% talked about it, which is barely more than in January (52%) and significantly less than during the previous elections at the same time (80% in 2017 and 72% in 2012).

Of course, the war in Ukraine plays a big part. But not only. One month after the invasion, astonishment has faded a bit, the fear of war has turned into a purchasing power concern. But the attention has not switched to the campaign.

Politics is not in the air anymore. Or politics is in the air — the French will be French — but outside of “institutionalized politics,” says political specialist Dominique Reynié. "An election is a way to channel a range of points of views, to settle disputes, but when this framework no longer exists, there is a risk of political impoverishment, confrontation and violence.”

Paradox of indifference

Some protests took place in the first months of 2022 (against mandatory vaccination, wages), oil depots were blocked, there has been violence in France’s Mediterranean island of Corsica and cities of Sevran and Aulnay-sous-Bois. Tensions that did not occur in the previous presidential elections. The campaign failed to use the country’s discontent and turn it into a political debate.

People look differently at a man in power.

As for Emmanuel Macron, he sort of split in two. The president and his government have done more to improve purchasing power, though the candidate barely mentions it in his program. People look differently at a man in power than they do a man running his first campaign.

There is a paradox amid this indifference. The president and his two prime ministers have never reached such vast audiences as they did during COVID-19. When Macron gave televised announcements at night, the country stopped, people turned on their TV and watched. Such a declaration as “whatever it takes” to help French citizens overcome the economic hardship of the pandemic has never been so well received. The government was present, helped us, protected us. "Yes, but it was precisely the French state through its civil servants, not the politicians," said one observer, as if dissociated.

Le Pen's chances

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen made this movement an asset. She also draws herself away from politics, concealing her imperfections, blurring the lines by claiming to be like late former President Jacques Chirac, a moderate and popular conservative.

So who today keeps the anti-Le Pen reflex intact? Laurent Berger a centrist labor leader clearly states in L'Obs magazine that his union will lend its support to whoever opposes Le Pen. His counterparts in other national organizations remain silent, for the moment. "Ask me the question again after April 10th," Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, head of France's largest industrial federation, declared in Le Figaro.

Democratic "accidents" can only happen during such times of political indifference. Anger is solved in the streets when politics is no longer a regulator. "An election aims at civilizing the debate," Dominique Reynié notes. "How can we reconcile with each other if the election does not play this role?" Let's vote, shall we?

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