France, six months out

In just on six months time, France goes to the polls for the first round of its presidential election. The field of candidates is not yet set, but things have been moving quickly, and we can be fairly confident about seven spots – either candidates, or places where candidates will appear. Going from left to right, they are as follows.

Mainstream far left: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon is a definite candidate, making his third attempt at the presidency; in 2017 he ran a close fourth with 19.6%. I say “mainstream” because no doubt there will again be one or more Trotskyist candidates to his left (last time there were two), but they will have no impact on the result.

Greens: Yannick Jadot. Jadot was the winner of the Greens primary held last month, narrowly beating Sandrine Rousseau 51.0% to 49.0%. Jadot represents the more moderate wing of the Greens; he was also their endorsed candidate in 2017, but withdrew to support Socialist Benoît Hamon, who nonetheless only managed a distant fifth.

Centre-left: Anne Hidalgo. The Socialist Party will endorse its candidate this week, but there’s no doubt that it will be Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris. The party is hoping to recover some ground from its 2017 disaster; the recent victory of the centre-left in Germany was a morale boost, but Hidalgo still trails both Mélenchon and Jadot in the polls.

Centre: Emmanuel Macron. Macron, who won the presidency in 2017 with a very comfortable 66.1% in the second round against Marine Le Pen, has not officially confirmed that he will seek re-election. But it is not regarded as doubtful, and with rising approval ratings he is clearly the front-runner.

Centre-right: Xavier Bertrand? The centre-right Republicans will choose their candidate by an internal vote in early December. There are three serious candidates – Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Michel Barnier – plus some also-rans; for present purposes I’ll assume Bertrand is the one.

Mainstream far right: Marine Le Pen. Fascists don’t do internal democracy much, so Le Pen is again undisputed as the candidate of her National Rally (formerly National Front). Her project of dragging it towards the mainstream, however, has opened up space to her right on the spectrum.

Extreme far right: Eric Zemmour? Zemmour, a television personality and hate merchant, has been the big story of the last couple of weeks. He has not officially declared himself a candidate, but he is already polling in the teens – evidently taking votes mostly from Le Pen, by focusing on issues that even she is unwilling to touch. He has rapidly become the darling of the Trumpists.

The strength and weakness of Macron’s position are apparent. He is the one in the middle: in a runoff against either a left or right candidate he starts with a strong advantage, because the other side will mostly rally to him as the lesser evil. But that entails the risk that he could be squeezed out; if left and right were each to form a united front, their candidates could end up in the runoff against each other, with Macron eliminated in the first round.

The most recent polls have Macron in the mid-20s, with a clear break from Le Pen, Bertrand and Zemmour, all in the teens, followed by Mélenchon and Jadot in the high single figures. A lot can change in six months, but there is no sign so far of the sort of unity among his opponents that might threaten Macron’s entry to the runoff.

Hypothetical polls of the second round consistently show Macron beating Le Pen, although by less than his 2017 margin. And a runoff against Bertrand – a real possibility if Le Pen and Zemmour split the far-right vote – is tipped to be closer still.

Note, however, two asymmetries between left and right. Firstly, Mélenchon, Jadot and Hidalgo all come from fundamentally the same political family. There are major differences between them, but it is not unthinkable that those differences could be compromised in some sort of united front. I’m pretty sure that it won’t happen, but it’s an option in the sense that a reconciliation between Bertrand and Le Pen (or, a fortiori, Bertrand and Zemmour) is not.

The second difference is in the relative strength of the far right. Even a strong right-of-centre candidate is still going to face the task of beating Macron in the runoff; there’s no prospect (absent the sort of united left that I’ve just mentioned) of Mélenchon being the opponent instead. But a candidate who managed to garner the combined left support might get lucky and find themself facing not Macron or Bertrand but Le Pen or Zemmour.

That, at any rate, seems the only possible route to a centre-left presidency this time around. Otherwise for practical purposes the left is stuck with Macron – who, while he has recently leant more to the right, has generally kept his promise of governing from the centre, and in doing so faced down a serious threat from the far right in the shape of the “yellow shirt” movement of 2018-19.

Most observers, it seems to me, underestimated the seriousness of that threat, probably because (captured perhaps by the myth of May 1968) they assumed that popular rebellion was something that only came from the left. And the same confusion gripped many leftists themselves, including Mélenchon, who gave the movement varying degrees of support.

But sanity ultimately prevailed, and there’s a good chance that it will do so again in six months time. Stay tuned.


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