April 19, 2022

France does not feel like it is entering a season of political turbulence. It barely feels like it is going through an important election. Away from the headlines — the disintegration of the old centre parties, the renaissance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the limp performance of Éric Zemmour — there is a widespread sense of apathy.

That was the atmosphere on the streets of Paris on the night of the first round. The Trocadéro, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, was occupied not by enthusiastic political activists but by tired partygoers who left the building littered with broken glass. The only detritus of the election were a huge “Zemmort 2022” tag (a contraction of Zemmour and the French word for death) and the occasional trampled campaign flier.

Even the presence of Le Pen in the run-off for a second time did not worry the locals, a stark contrast with 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, made the second round and jolted the French youth into organising mass demonstrations against the threat of a far-Right presidency. This is the real story of the 2022 election so far. We are witnessing a phantom campaign.

Another striking example of the exceptional disinterest in this year’s campaign: TF1, France’s oldest and most popular TV channel, decided to broadcast the hilarious medieval time-travel movie Les Visiteurs at 10 pm, only two hours after the announcement of the official results. It was the earliest that the channel had ever cut away from its election debrief.

The impression of apathy is backed empirically. Of registered citizens, 26% abstained, the highest number since 2002. 68% found the election “uninteresting”, according to the pollster Ipsos. A month before the first round, “tiredness” was the strongest emotion associated with the election.

Away from the verbal provocations of Zemmour, the electoral platforms this year were uniformly bland. Even the relatively lacklustre 2017 campaign entertained radical ideas like universal income, enormous public-sector spending cuts, and a potential French exit from the EU. Large-scale rallies, normally essential rites of passage for presidential candidates, were virtually absent from the last few weeks.

The election also suffered dearly from the absence of its main candidate, President Macron. The incumbent announced his campaign a mere four weeks before the vote and held one major rally before the run-off. He declined to show up for any of the debates with the other candidates, largely because he did not want to be reduced to their level at a time when the war in Ukraine imbued him with international stature. His platform was purposefully modest. It focused on Macron’s strongest attribute: his experience.

This lack of public interest in the election — and with it, the lack of any serious debate about the country’s future — will weigh heavily on the French Republic’s health. More than in any other European country, the French President commands immense executive power. He can fire his Prime Minister at will and call early parliamentary elections with virtually no restrictions. And unlike his American counterpart, he cannot be impeached.

The French psyche is perhaps even more important than France’s institutional landscape. For all the mythology around France decapitating her king, the French have never broken completely from their long monarchic past. De Gaulle, when he founded the Fifth Republic, made it explicitly clear that he was building a “synthesis” between France’s monarchic and republican traditions — one that would give the president considerable power.

Macron has often used the symbolism of the monarchy for political purposes. In 2017, weeks after his election, he hosted Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles, and twice during his term he used his constitutional right to give a speech in Versailles to the Congress in an apparent attempt to develop a French version of the United States’ ‘State of the Union’ address. Before he became President, he said of French politics that “we are missing a king”.

The French presidential election has replaced the coronation ceremony as the symbolic centre of French politics. This means, however, that the présidentielles must be a moment of democratic catharsis. Here is the occasion for France’s electorate to wrestle with all of its frustrations and desires. Debate and political conflict reach new heights, families and friends weigh on the various campaign pledges, and tempers sometimes get out of hand. All topics must be on the table because once the presidential ship has sailed, the opposition parties have few institutional means to steer public policy.

None of that is happening in 2022. And the lack of this ritual catharsis will have profound ripple effects. The next president will lack a strong mandate to implement his (or her) vision. Macron announced mezza voce that he would increase the legal retirement age from 62 to 65, but he has done little legwork in his campaign to get the French on board with this policy. Given France’s long tradition of strikes and Macron’s incapacity to pass a milder pension reform in his first term, this reform could well be political dynamite.

The 2017 campaign was also underwhelming, albeit to a lesser extent. In its late stages, it was largely highjacked by the centre-Right candidate François Fillon’s financial scandals, which sidelined substantive debate over other issues. Strikingly, in a country that had been recently rocked by a series of high-profile jihadist attacks, the issues of political Islam and what would later be coined “separatism” were largely secondary, as was the question of climate change.

As a result, France wound up electing a president, Macron, that it did not really know. This came back to haunt Macron, who soon discovered that he lacked a mandate for much of his governing agenda. On questions of Islam and identity, for instance, Macron ran a campaign in 2017 that embraced the traditional multiculturalism of the centre-Left. He praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for welcoming over one million refugees in 2015 and provoked many conservatives by stating that there was “no such thing as French culture, there is a culture in France and it is diverse”. In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, he was heralded by the liberal international media as the new internationalist champion to slay populist dragons.

This very New Labour stance on identity did not hold. In a blend of tactical triangulation and real concern about France’s unity, Macron, once in office, steered sharply to the Right on immigration and identity. He gave a 12-page interview to the staunchly Right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles in which he echoed many of its concerns on immigration, and his minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, a former Nicolas Sarkozy ally, even called Le Pen “soft” when she argued that jihadism had nothing to do with Islam. Many of his Left-wing supporters in Parliament abandoned him in response to this about-face.

But it was the issue of environmentalism that led to Macron’s first real setback in November 2018. Increasingly resentful rural French, who felt condescended to by a president who was accumulating a series of insensitive gaffes (including telling someone to “cross the road to find a job”), finally revolted when Macron went along with a scheduled green tax on diesel. Thousands of Gilets Jaunes rose up across the country, occupied roundabouts, and headed to Paris to manifest their profound discontent.

Macron undeniably paid for 40 years of governmental disinterest for what Christophe Guilluy has called “peripheral France”, but he also suffered from the lack of cathartic debate over his policies, including his green pledges. Although the French state was eventually able to repress the riots and protests, the Gilets Jaunes represented an outburst of revolutionary anger against the system. Denied a proper debate over the direction of their country, many ordinary people felt that taking to the streets was their only option.

So while over the next few days all eyes will be on the genuine, albeit still somewhat hypothetical, risks of a Le Pen presidency, the real poison for French democracy might already be in its veins. In 2017, the pollster Brice Teinturier published the prophetic “Plus Rien à faire, Plus rien à foutre” (don’t care, don’t give a damn), in which he demonstrated that 40% of French citizens were disappointed with French politics, 13% angry, 20% disgusted, 9% indifferent. Only 18% expressed positive emotions. Teinturier even hinted that anger might be preferable to apathy, because angry citizens still want to believe in a cause. Apathetic citizens have given up.

Assuming that Macron is indeed re-elected, France’s monarchical republic will give him all of the power he needs to muscle his agenda through the country’s institutions. But, after the experience of his first term, we should all be concerned that the French Republic will pay dearly for this year’s phantom campaign.