Round one in France

Five years ago, the first round of France’s presidential election was a fascinating contest: four candidates all placed within a narrow band, between 19.6% and 24.0%. Any two of them – six possible combinations – could realistically have been the pair that made the runoff.

The second round, by contrast, was a foregone conclusion (although you might not have guessed this from the Anglophone press coverage). Provided that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron was one of the successful pair, it was clear that he would win easily: and so he did, with 66.1% against 33.9% for the far right’s Marine Le Pen.

This year, with Macron seeking a second term, it is the other way around. The first round, being held today, is the less interesting one; it’s all but certain that Macron and Le Pen will again be the two leaders. But the runoff in two weeks’ time is not nearly so clear.

For most of the last year, Le Pen’s position has not looked as strong as it was in 2017. There were three credible threats to her place in the runoff; the centre-right, the left, and a new rival on the further right, anti-Muslim self-publicist Éric Zemmour. But the last few weeks of polling show her well clear on all fronts and only a few points behind Macron, both in the low to mid-20s.

The centre-right, which started with high hopes for its candidate, Valérie Pécresse, has dwindled to single digits. Pécresse has been unable to stake out a distinctive position between Macron’s centrism, which has tacked rightwards this year, and Le Pen’s nationalism, which is trying to present itself as more mainstream. The centre-right is still strong at regional and local level, but at the national level it is being squeezed out.

Zemmour has had a similar trajectory; his novelty value saw him draw almost level with Le Pen late last year, but he failed to make the leap from provocateur to serious contender. The invasion of Ukraine seems to have particularly hurt him, with his support almost halving in the last month and a half. He and Pécresse will fight out fourth place.

Running third, and the only even slightly plausible threat to the top two, is the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Like Le Pen’s, his vote has been on the rise for the last month, as voters consolidate their position behind the most realistic chances. For centre-left voters that is a bitter pill to swallow – Mélenchon’s anti-cosmopolitan sort of leftism seems like a throwback to a different era, having more than a little in common with Le Pen’s nationalism.

Nonetheless, the evidence is that a number of them are swallowing it, helped by endorsements like that from 2007 Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. The other three left-of-centre candidates (not counting the two Trotskyists), Green Yannick Jadot, Communist Fabien Roussel and Socialist Anne Hidalgo, are all marooned in the low single digits. But the ten per cent or so of the vote that they still command between them would be enough to put Mélenchon into the runoff if it were to swing his way.

Although Macron still leads the field, with perhaps a couple of points more than his 2017 first-round result, the way the race is otherwise shaping up spells danger for him. It suggests that he is more the target for the others than he was five years ago: the candidates whose votes are most likely to flow to him in the second round – Pécresse, Jadot, Hidalgo – are weaker than their equivalents were then, and in their place is the bloc of Zemmour’s vote, which will flow strongly to Le Pen.

The runoff is still very much Macron’s to lose. But with his margin over Le Pen now down to single figures, and with hypothetical polls always a bit unreliable, a Le Pen victory has become imaginable in a way that was never previously the case.

Conversely, if there is a boilover tonight and Mélenchon reaches the runoff instead of Le Pen, he too would have a chance of becoming president. Much of the far-right vote is driven not by ideology but by an “anyone but Macron” sentiment, and it would migrate happily enough to Mélenchon if he was the alternative, although on the current polling he has more of a deficit to make up (a reversal of the 2017 position, when his hypothetical polling was much stronger than Le Pen’s).

In one sense, Macron’s fortunes depend on how you interpret last weekend’s Hungarian result. If it showed that voters opt for incumbency in time of crisis, then Macron should be safe. His recent drop in the polls, after all, just erases only some of the boost that he got from the outbreak of war.

If, on the other hand, the moral of Hungary is that Ukraine is not such a winning cause and that a pro-Russian record – shared by Le Pen, Mélenchon, Zemmour and to some extent Pécresse – is not such a great handicap, then the president could be in for quite a bit of trouble. But we’ll know soon enough.

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