France’s left on the spot

Emmanuel Macron remains a solid favorite, although not an unbackable one, for re-election in the second round of the French presidential election, to be held tomorrow [Sunday night, Australian time].

Although the runoff is a contest between centre and far right, most of the talk in France (where I spent last week) is of the left and what its voters will do – in particular, those who supported far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose 22.0% took him to third place, just 1.2% behind the far right’s Marine Le Pen.

Mélenchon has again declined to endorse Macron, but he has appealed to his supporters not to back Le Pen. It’s understood that not all of them will heed that advice, but most will. Although objectively they may seem to have similar policies, the tribal differences between far left and far right are expected to continue to keep them apart.

That separation is enhanced by the fact that many Mélenchon voters evidently do not belong to the far left at all. They are more or less mainstream centre-left voters who drifted to Mélenchon as it became clear that he was the only left-of-centre candidate with even the slightest chance of making it to the runoff – and as he pitched his appeal more and more in those terms.

Now, with those votes up for grabs, Macron too has appealed to a certain left-wing solidarity, offering warm words to Mélenchon and targetting France’s Muslim community, which supported Mélenchon overwhelmingly and has perhaps the most to fear from a Le Pen presidency. The president is ending his first term as he began it, striking a delicate balance between left and right.

The centre-right Republicans, somewhat ironically, can perhaps be grateful that their very poor performance in the first round has deprived them of most of the spotlight since then. Their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, unlike Mélenchon, has directly endorsed Macron, but her voters are up for grabs in much the same way. Le Pen aims to attract a large share of them, as part of her quest to be the undisputed leader of the French right.

Most of the Republican leadership is also backing Macron (including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who conspicuously failed to endorse Pécresse in the first round), but not all. Conservative Éric Ciotti, whom Pécresse beat for the nomination, has said he will not vote for Macron, although he stopped short of endorsing Le Pen.

If the Republicans cannot recover as a viable party, the seeds are there for their right-wing to make its peace with the far right, in something like the way that their namesake has in the United States. But this is a topic that no-one seems to want to talk about.

For now then it’s the much larger body of left-of-centre voters who are being put to the test. Will they rally in a common front for democracy, as they did in 2002 and (less strongly) in 2017? Or will enough of them stay home, or cast blank ballots, or even drift into the Le Pen camp to cause an almighty upset?

The polls say not; if they are right, Macron will win with a margin of around ten points. That’s a big comedown from last time, but it’s otherwise about normal for French presidential elections. For comparison, François Hollande won with 51.6% in 2012, and Sarkozy had 53.1% in 2007.

Polls have been wrong before, although an error that big would be most exceptional. The bigger worry is simply in the idea that a far-right candidate can come within “normal” range. That suggests a serious malaise in the French political system – and big risks for 2027, when Macron will no longer be on the ballot.

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