Could France's upcoming presidential election risk destabilising the country, whether or not Emmanuel Macron triumphs? So far, nearly 40 candidates have declared their intention to stand in April's poll. But to qualify, they face another hurdle: one which several key candidates, including Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are struggling to overcome. Together, Le Pen (16.5 per cent), Éric Zemmour (12.5 per cent) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (ten per cent) enjoy the support of nearly four in ten French voters. But they might be shut out of the race. If so, a real democratic chasm would open up, undermining the whole election and the legitimacy of the winner.
Every candidate in the presidentials must deal with the system of parrainages, which requires a person running for office to validate their eligibility. They must do so by obtaining 500 signatures from France’s elected representatives (mayors to senators) by 22 February. The system – which has long existed under the 5th Republic – is aimed at eliminating fantasy candidates. But that Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon are all struggling to reach the required number of signatures, shows that this system has become far too restrictive.
So could these candidates really be shut out? It's certainly no theoretical scenario. In 1981, when the system was less restrictive, it still prevented Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National from standing. Since 2017, these signatures have been made public. This has provoked considerable anxiety on the part of local mayors that either their voters may not approve of their assenting to a particular candidate or, worse still, that councils of a different political colour at departmental or regional level might punish local mayors by denying them subsidies. The process works against non-traditional candidates without local party bases, effectively fossilising the system. The irony is that established party candidates with meagre poll ratings have no difficulty in obtaining their signatures, like the Socialist party’s Anne Hidalgo on 2.5 per cent, and for whom it is waspishly observed that her signatures will outnumber her votes.
The threat of widespread abstention is a further fear. The second round of the 2017 presidentials that handed Emmanuel Macron his victory had the lowest turnout since 1969. At French regional elections last spring the abstention rate was the highest ever at 66 per cent. French law does not allow elections to be annulled for low turnout. Yet things are shaping up for potentially massive abstentions. Why? Because what is politically on offer is a source of widespread disaffection provoked by political division on left and right.
On the left, eight candidates (including Christiane Taubira, the radical former justice minister under François Hollande, who announced her intention to run at the weekend) refuse to agree on a single candidate. This inability to unite is frustrating and angering the left’s electorate whose accumulated score is polling at under 30 per cent, the lowest level for decades.
On the right, the three candidates – from the nationalist right’s Éric Zemmour to the populist conservative Marine Le Pen and centre-right Valérie Pécresse – are similarly divided and splitting the vote. This makes for something of a circular firing squad for the right-wing candidates and frees up a boulevard for Macron’s candidacy, however unpopular.
But even with this political splintering, Macron's score, though greater than his competitors, is only 22.5 per cent. The prospect of Emmanuel Macron being in the second round almost by default creates the risk of a wall of disenchanted voters abstaining in the second round and denying Macron any legitimacy. This could hamstring his ability to govern far more seriously than did the 2017 elections, when Macron was the first choice of only one in four of the electorate, his second round score of 66.1 per cent bloated by voters holding their noses and casting a vote to block Marine Le Pen.
A third source of political anxiety as elections approach is that of violence. According to France’s Interior ministry, since July – and the introduction of France’s health pass – 300 death threats have been issued against parliamentarians. In the first eleven months of 2021, 1186 elected representatives were targets of physical aggression.
This frightening level of violence has been heightened recently by Macron’s declaration that he wished to ‘piss off’ France’s unvaccinated, indicating they were inferior citizens. On 8 January across France over 105,000 demonstrated against the executive’s law on a new vaccination pass with banners pointedly referencing Macron’s scornful words. Even before this latest attempt by Macron to wind up the electorate, a well respected opinion survey last year found that 61 per cent of the French do not have confidence in their government and 59 per cent in the presidency. Other than Italy, this was the highest figure in any other European democracy.
A final ingredient to this potentially explosive cocktail is the impact it could have on the legislative elections that will follow on 12 and 19 June 2022 if Macron wins by default. If many French voters resent Macron’s return to the Elysée, the ensuing parliamentary elections could deprive him of a majority to govern. If this happens, the potential for a crisis of regime against a background of mounting violence conjures up historical precedents from France’s turbulent political history that she may prefer to forget.