In the best of times and the worst of times, France has a habit of guillotining its leaders. No French President has won a second term for 20 years. No French government has been endorsed by the electorate since 1978. Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were re-elected in 1988 and 2002, but only after they had lost de facto power in parliamentary elections two and five years before.
Emmanuel Macron, who faces a two-round Presidential election on 10 and 24 April, has a good chance of escaping the tumbril this year. He has been running ahead of the pack with 23-25% of first-round voting intentions for months.
This may appear surprising. It has not, after all, been The Best of Times for Macron. He has had one of the most troubled presidencies of the Fifth Republic. There was the Gilets Jaunes revolt in peripheral and outer suburban France in 2018-9. There was a widespread rebellion against his flagship pension reforms in 2020. The past two years, nearly half his term, have been frozen by the Covid pandemic.
Could the most fickle electorate in the Western world re-elect a president who is detested by millions and who has, partly because of Covid, failed to deliver many of the reforms that he promised in 2017?
Yes, it is possible. Emmanuel Macron remains popular with the well-off and the highly educated, as well as with many young people and with many old people. His approval ratings are the highest of any late-term President since Mitterrand and higher than when the pandemic began.
All the same, the volatility of France’s recent electoral history should not be ignored. Many voters remain undecided. Only just over half are willing to express an opinion to pollsters. And almost one in three has changed their mind in the last three months. A Macron victory may remain the most probable outcome. But there are still three ways he could lose the Élysée…
First scenario: Omicron overwhelms France
France has weathered the pandemic better than many of its neighbours. Its economy has recovered strongly. The French vaccination programme, after a slow start, overtook Britain’s in September. Street protests against the “health pass” flared in August but fizzled out by October.
Macron has taken most of the key anti-Covid decisions himself, alternating between “strike early” and “wait-and-hope”: he has locked down France three times but he has also gambled against scientific advice on a couple of occasions to keep France open or partially open.
Faced with Omicron, he has reverted to “wait-and-hope” mode. France entered the New Year with almost half of its 7,000 acute care beds occupied by Covid patients — well beyond the 3,000 level which had triggered lockdowns in the past. Almost all of these people have been stricken by Delta. Omicron cases are exploding but the impact on severe sickness and mortality is still to be felt.
Nonetheless, France has taken the least draconian anti-Omicron measures of any western European country other than England. New partial lockdowns, curfews, and an extension of the school holidays were all rejected by Macron last week — against scientific and ministerial advice. Like Boris Johnson in Britain, Macron is fearful of the effect on public opinion of a new clampdown. Unlike Johnson, he also has to consider electoral opinion.
In a two-hour television interview in December, Macron made his first big public statement of the campaign while refusing to confirm that he would run. His pitch was revealing: the energetic young revolutionary of 2017 offered himself as a safe-pair-of-hands — a man who had learned much in office and adversity and could now be trusted to do the right thing.
Only ten days after that, Macron took an electoral gamble with the nation’s health. He hopes to harvest the credit for defying scientific advice on Omicron and refusing a curfew or lockdown. Even if the country is forced into a scrambled Omicron lockdown, he might still reap an electoral bonus from being leader of the nation in an emergency.
A presidential election “en plein pandémique”, disrupting campaigning and depressing turnout, is a scenario that Macron’s opponents fear. In the regional elections last summer, every sitting regional president was re-elected.
But all depends on how serious Omicron turns out to be. Even if it is somewhat milder than Delta, the sheer weight of infections could topple an exhausted French hospital system by February or March.
If that happens, Macron would forfeit his right to be considered “a safe pair of hands”. An election in a time of plague might help the President — but it could also destroy him.
Second scenario: The Left fights back
One of the curiosities of this French election has been the implosion of the Left. Seven Left-wing and green candidates are set to receive 27% of the first-round vote. Yet as recently as 2012, 43.75% voters chose Left and green candidates in the first round of a presidential election. Where have all those people gone?
Some are sulking because they see no attractive candidate, while a further chunk of white, working-class voters has migrated to the far-Right. But a substantial section of the moderate Left vote has also gone to Macron. Their support, however, is far from guaranteed.
In the 2017 election, Macron split the centre-right but he also split the centre-left from which, in theory, he came. At the moment, the small print of the polls suggests that one third of Macron’s “base” once voted centre-left. The rest come from the amorphous “centre” or from the pro-European wing of the centre-right.
One of Macron’s great fears for this year was that a plausible centre-left or green candidate might emerge to reclaim his remaining moderate-left vote. It has not happened — yet.
The Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is the theoretical heir of Hollande and Mitterrand. She is currently attracting 3% of voters in Round One. The Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, has around 6%. The Macron camp remains mildly anxious all the same.
Efforts are now underway to thin the field of Left and green candidates by persuading some of them to enter an independent, online “popular primary” later this month. The eloquent, much-loved (on the Left) former justice minister, Christiane Taubira, has indicated she will take part. So has Hidalgo. Could the winner gain a primary “bounce” which would reclaim centre-left votes from Macron?
It is doubtful, but not impossible. If Macron is damaged by a new Covid crisis, he might surrender three or four percentage points to a moderately competitive Left-wing candidate. That would bring him to within striking distance of the trio of far right and centre-right candidates currently squabbling on 13-17% of the vote for one of the two tickets into Round Two.
It is impossible to imagine any Left-wing candidate reaching the second round. A more competitive Left-wing candidate could, however, take enough votes from the President to allow two right-wing candidates to squeeze him out of the run-off.
Third scenario: the power of Pécresse
The French system of two rounds of voting was revived by Charles de Gaulle for a different political age. The intention was to allow a cacophony of choices which would be edited by the voters into a Right-Left, two-candidate final choice. But since the rise of the far-Right and the weakening of the traditional political families of centre-left and centre-right, the two-round system has become a lottery.
In the first round in 2017, Macron came top with 8.65 million votes. The following three candidates were almost neck and neck, with between 7.05 and 7.6 million votes. For the first time, neither of the traditional “governing families” of centre-right or centre-left reached the second round.
Something similar could happen in April. The opinion polls give Macron the same first round support that he had five years ago. Three other candidates are chasing the second spot and the golden ticket into Round Two.
The great difference this time is that two of those candidates are from the far-Right: Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. The remaining candidate is from the traditional or “Republican” Right: Valérie Pécresse.
Zemmour, after a lightning rise to 18-19% in September’s polls, has slumped to 12-13%. Le Pen, who was neck and neck with Macron before the summer, stumbled and has now recovered a little to around 16%. Meanwhile, Valérie Pécresse zoomed from nowhere to 19-20% after winning the centre-right primary last month. She has now settled back to 16-17%, just ahead of Le Pen.
It is possible — even likely — that this trio will dispute the second place in the run-off round until the first voting day on 10 April. The prize may, once again, be decided by a few thousand votes.
It is also possible that Zemmour will run out of steam. Suggestions in the British media that the essayist and TV pundit could win the presidency were always far-fetched. Zemmour’s negative ratings were higher than Le Pen’s when he started campaigning unofficially in August. They have grown by 8 percentage points since then to -65%.
If the Zemmour vote melts down, it will split fairly evenly between Le Pen and Pécresse — with perhaps slightly more going to Le Pen. The outcome of that three-way battle is crucial for Macron. The opinion polls suggest that Macron would crush Zemmour if they were to confront one another on 24 April, while he would also defeat Le Pen fairly easily — but closer to 55-45% than his 66-34% landslide of 2017.
A Macron-Pécresse second round, however, would be a toss-up. Many, though not all, Left-wing voters have developed (and almost cherish) a visceral hatred for the President. Nor do they have much time for Pécresse. But they would still vote for her in the run-off to evict Macron from the Elysée.
The most recent opinion polls show Macron winning such a battle — but only just and within the margin of error. In such a scenario, a Pécresse victory cannot be ruled out.
Macron’s advisors claim that Pécresse will turn out to be a poor campaigner and that they still expect to face Le Pen in the second round. But this will depend on two unknowns: the progress of Omicron and the manoeuvres and gesticulations of what remains of the French Left.
Here, all the same, is a confident prediction: if Macron is defeated, it will be by Valérie Pécresse. She will either snatch “his” place in the run-off (unlikely) or she will narrowly defeat him there (possible).
For one thing is clear: if the next President is not Macron, she will be a woman — and it won’t be Le Pen.