Jonathan Miller

France’s election has become a race for second place

France's election has become a race for second place
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This year’s French election campaign is a strangely muted affair. The incumbent, president Emmanuel Macron, has still neglected to declare that he is a candidate, even as he directs the entire weight of the French state towards his re-election. The geometry is highly variable. Pollsters admit privately that they’re struggling to measure abstentionism, or how to weigh up the insurgency of Eric Zemmour, since they’re unable to calibrate their data against any previous election performance by him. Macron looks certain to enter the second round and almost certain to win it. The dynamic question is, who will face him?

There’s a dog-that-didn’t-bark quality to the campaign because, despite the obsession of all media and political classes and some militants on the left and the right, most voters seem entirely unmoved. Thus far, even with fewer than 90 days to go until round one and then a run-off two weeks later, the election has not caught the popular imagination.

This morning, an Odoxa survey for Public Sénat, LCP and the regional press estimated that only 39 per cent of French people have a favourable opinion of Macron, a figure that is the lowest since last summer. Yet his re-election seems inevitable.

Macron believes his best tactic is to wait as long as possible to launch a ‘blitzkrieg’ in which he will announce victory over Covid and control the agenda. He’s refusing to debate his opponents in the first round. The polls show him on 25 per cent, hardly a ringing endorsement but easily enough to see him into the second round.

After that, Macron might have a problem. His preferred opponent in round two has always been Marine Le Pen but since the entry of Eric Zemmour into the election she’s no longer a dead cert.

Marine Le Pen is looking miserable. Her party is deeply in debt. Between a third and a half of her supporters have already defected to the Zemmour insurgency. She and her father have failed seven times to win the presidency. Very light and confused on policy, she’s tried to detoxify her party but has only annoyed her traditional voters. She’s not convincing but still on 16 per cent.

Zemmour is on 13 per cent and is campaigning vigorously. He is attracting large crowds and building out his portmanteau Reconquête party and his campaign organisation, yet the polls suggest his support is faltering. He had a big day in Provence last week, parking his tanks in the Le Pen family’s back yard, where he attracted numerous new endorsements including from Le Pen stalwarts.

His team believe the polls are missing a significant public shift towards him. That remains to be seen. His trump card, if you’ll forgive the expression, for reaching the second round could be the endorsement of Marion Maréchal, the attractive niece of Marine Le Pen, who could pull enough support away from her aunt to push Zemmour over the top and into the second round. But Zemmour still remains short of the 500 sponsors necessary to get on the ballot and his supporters claim that mayors are being pressured not to back him.

The candidate of Les Républicains, Valerie Pécresse, remains enigmatic to most voters. People say she’s brilliant and funny but her public persona remains froid, like Macron’s. Like the president, she is thoroughly Europeanist. Where she differs from Macron on key issues is not yet clear. On Europe, Macron and Pécresse’s positions are indistinguishable. She’s on 18 per cent.

The left is a disaster zone. The candidate of the once mighty Parti Socialiste, Anne Hidalgo, amazingly unpopular mayor of Paris, is scraping three per cent. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the unreconstructed candidate of the farther left France Insoumise, attracts support from socialist true believers and still holds big rallies but he hovers around ten per cent in the polls.

The left is further divided by the green EELV, whose candidate Yannick Jadot is polling at five per cent – still ahead of Hidalgo. François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor as president, has now floated the idea that he could return to unite the left. This seems fanciful. Hollande is generally remembered as an embarrassment.

There’s a wild card in the shape of the former prime minister, Édouard Philippe, mayor of Le Havre and Macron’s first prime minister, who has launched his own party, Horizons, and who comfortably outpolls both Macron and Pécresse. Philippe has said he will support Macron’s re-election, but his polling has become hard to ignore.

Other than Macron’s supporters, Philippe is preferred to the president by 75 per cent of centrist Républicains, 63 per cent of socialist party supporters, 62 per cent of greens, 68 per cent of Leftist France Insoumise supporters and an extraordinary 86 per cent of Rassemblement National (née Front National) voters.

Philippe may have biding his time for 2027 but these numbers must make him wonder if his hour is being thrust upon him.

Written byJonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, who lives in Montpellier, is the author of ‘France, a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (Gibson Square). His Twitter handle is: @lefoudubaron

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