Elections in France – apparent stability, profound transformation

Image: Cyrus Saurius


It is important not to interpret the results of this first round as a repeat of the 2017 elections.


The official results of the first round of the French elections seem to confirm the political dynamics that also operated in the previous elections. Emmanuel Macron (La République in Marche, LREM) and Marine Le Pen (National Gathering, RN) went to the second round – just like five years ago, repeating the same duel. The last and only time this happened in France was when Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (RPR) confronted François Mitterrand (Socialist Party) on two occasions, the first in 1974, when the right-wing candidate emerged victorious, and the other in 1981, when the socialist triumphed.

Such stability is largely associated with the influence of the main candidates. Participants in this game for more than five years, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen were able to maintain a loyal electoral base. Over the past few weeks, new voters have approached them, prioritizing the so-called 'useful vote' over party interests.


the helpful vote

Compared to 2017, Macron advanced by almost 4%. The increase is even more remarkable when we consider that the incumbent president has abandoned the middle ground position between the right and the left that had ensured his initial success and adopted an agenda that clearly places him in a center-right position on the political spectrum. .

This movement alienated a fraction of its voters on the left, but attracted a larger portion of the center and the right – proof of this is the very weak result (4,7%) of Valérie Pécresse, candidate of the The Republicans (LR).

Marine Le Pen had a similar breakthrough, with a result never achieved by the Front National (FN) and therefore at National Gathering (RN) in a presidential election. She also benefited from the demands for the useful vote and was, in this way, able to overtake Éric Zemmour (reconquest), former journalist for Figaro and far-right candidate. Initially successful in undermining his campaign, Zemmour eventually helped Le Pen complete his decade-plus effort to "normalize" his candidacy. Claiming the niche of the identity right, Zemmour allowed Le Pen to insist on issues closer to everyday life, which have a greater appeal to the working classes.

On the left of the political spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Insubordinate France (LFI), obtained its best result in its third presidential election, also benefiting from the support in extremis from a moderate left-wing constituency whose biggest concern was avoiding a runoff with Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Mélenchon came within 1,5 points of Le Pen, but was unable to contain it and go into the second round.


A French political field divided in three

O momentum of the useful vote, which gained strength about a month before the first round, seems to confirm the restructuring, which was already underway in 2017, of the French political field around three main poles: (i) a liberal, centrist and European pole which attracts, in all national elections, a little more than a quarter of the votes, but which, due to the mechanisms of the majority system, has managed to dominate political life until now; (ii) a populist and identity pole, today dominated by Le Pen and represented by two candidates whose cumulative result (more than 30%) constitutes a historic record for the extreme right and for identity populism in a French national election, thus being the pole that has advanced the most in the last five years: (iii) a radical left-wing pole, dominated by Insubordinate France. Accumulating a little less than 25% of the vote, if we include the results of the communist and Trotskyist candidates.

This division results in a marginalization of the two political parties that structured French political life since the 1970s, the Les Republicains (formerly UMP), center-right, and the Socialist Party, center-left.


The decline of traditional parties: an air of déjà vu

With less than 2% of the votes, the Socialist Party is witnessing a decline that could be merely circumstantial. Such a turn of events does not fail to remind us of the fate of the Radical Party at the beginning of the Fifth Republic: having dominated the left at that time, the party became a victim of the bipolarization of the political scene, provoked by President Charles de Gaulle, only surviving due to a wide network of elected representatives, mainly in the southwest of France (as is the case today with the Socialist Party).

The decline of the traditional right is another salient feature of these elections, with LR candidate Valérie Pécresse winning just a quarter of the votes her party had secured five years ago. This result seems to be another blow against the The Republicans, which obtained their lowest share of votes in the 2019 European elections, just 8,4%, compared to 20,1% obtained in 2014. This also demonstrates how narrow the political space is now occupied by this party, squeezed between the Macron's centre-right and Le Pen's populist extreme right.


Important developments since 2017

It is important not to interpret the results of this first round as a repeat of the 2017 elections. The apparent stability of the balance of forces masks important changes. The political landscape continues to shift to the right. The emergence of Éric Zemmour's identity platform and Emmanuel Macron's new political proposal are proof of this. Although Jean-Luc Mélenchon made certain advances, they were not enough to compensate for the sharp decline of the Socialist Party.

Populism is also on the rise. In five years, and under the effects of a good number of social movements (especially the yellow vests), his rhetoric became more radical. The split between the people and the elite appears, more than ever, at the polls. This populist advance weakens Emmanuel Macron, whose position is less advantageous than it might initially appear.

The incumbent president obtains results comparable to some of his predecessors who were not re-elected in the second round: Giscard d'Estaing, in 1981 (28% of the votes), and Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2012 (27% of the votes). Furthermore, he has not been able to capitalize on the desire for change that was important to his victory five years ago. The campaign in the interval between the two shifts will therefore bring into play two antagonistic projects, two visions of society, but also a tension between, on the one hand, the “clearance” (that is, a political ideology based on the French verb free, “expel” or “overthrow”, which defends the rejection of the established political class), hostile to the current president, and, on the other hand, the defense, by most of the candidates in the first round, of a collective front against the extreme right .

* Mathias Bernard is a professor at the Université Clermont Auvergne. Author, among other books, of Histoire politique de la Ve République: De 1958 à nos jours (Armand Colin).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the portal The Conversation.

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