CW: Mentions of racism, Islamophobia and rape
Illustration by Ben Beechener
Disastrous for some, surprising for others, full of late drama and with plot twists at every turn: the first round of the French presidential election was at once dizzyingly unpredictable and yet produced the same second-round matchup as in 2017. French voters were faced with a selection of 12 candidates from across the political spectrum, including three shades of communist, three versions of the far-right and a former shepherd. However, the two highest-scoring candidates were incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his challenger from the last election, Marine Le Pen. The two will face off against each other in the second round on the 24th of April, with the result expected to be significantly closer than their first match-up.
The many candidates and their parties had very varied fortunes from the election results, with some previously unknown figures rising to prominence, and other previously dominant parties crashing to record lows. The top four candidates were all representing parties that didn’t exist before 2016, while neither of the two ‘established’ parties garnered more than 5% of the vote.
The results mainly show it was a three-horse race at the end, with Macron, Le Pen, and left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon earning more than 20% each, with the next-best placed candidate, far-right Eric Zemmour, on only 7%, and no other candidate getting more than 5%.
Macron won a clear victory in the first round, gaining 27.85% of the vote, some way ahead of Le Pen on 23.15%. However, this does not assure him an easy victory in the second round, with a lot hanging on who Mélenchon’s 7.7 million voters decide to give their vote to, and how many will simply abstain.
The turnout for the election was comparatively low for France, with a turnout of 72.09%, down from 77.8% in 2017. This is not, however, the lowest in recent history as some outlets were predicting, with the 2002 election having an abstention rate of 28.5%.
So how did each candidate perform, were they successful, and what will their voters do next?
Emmanuel Macron- 1st place; 27.85%
There is much for Macron to be pleased about in this election. His first term has been hectic and highly controversial, with opposition from the Gilets Jaunes movement early on, and more recently anger at policies that some believe to be Islamophobic. Foreign Affairs have also overshadowed much of his time in office, especially Brexit negotiations, sending more troops to the taskforce in Mali, and then announcing a complete withdrawal, and most recently the war in Ukraine.
Despite all this, however, he performed better this election than in 2017. His vote share has increased by 3.84% from five years ago, and he increased his lead from 2.7% to 4.6%, showing he has been able to keep his diverse voter base relatively united and preserve his position as a centrist — his slogan is ‘en même temps’, or ‘at the same time’, ‘on the other hand’. His political philosophy can be summed up by a quote from a speech in the 2017 campaign: “I choose growth and solidarity, liberty and equality, businesses and employees, the best of the right, the left, and the centre”.
In this respect, he seems to have succeeded: he, the former socialist Minister of the Economy under François Hollande, has appointed two Prime Ministers from the traditional conservative party, the Republicans; reduced taxes; adopted an open-door immigration policy during the refugee crisis; tried to implement a petrol tax; and strengthened anti-terrorism laws.
However, he cannot rest on his laurels, and his path back to the Presidency is far from secure. With the other far-right candidates endorsing Le Pen, his main task will be to win over the left before the second round. He will need to assure those who voted for Mélenchon and other left-leaning candidates that he still represents them, and isn’t simply a watered-down version of the traditional right.
He has already begun a shift to the left in his campaign appearances, including not ruling out that he could put the retirement age increase to a referendum, and mentioning youth and environment issues more. However, the endorsement of former conservative President Nicholas Sarkozy will not help in this endeavour.
Even if he does win the Presidency again, the upcoming legislative elections in June will pose another challenge — if he does not maintain a majority in the National Assembly it will be difficult to enact much of his controversial agenda, including the plan to raise the retirement age to 65.
Marine Le Pen- 2nd place; 23.15%
Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Rally party will be emboldened by these results. She too has performed better than five years ago, and her path to victory in the 2nd round is much clearer (though still, according to most polls, unlikely).
Having lost badly in the 2nd round in 2017, gaining only 34% of the vote, she will be looking to pose a much stronger challenge to Macron this time around. Polls currently show her winning about 47% of the vote, and with two weeks of campaign time to go, she may well be able to turn things around.
Her path to victory is still difficult, however. She has to unite the far right, which was divided between her and two other candidates in the first round (with one, Eric Zemmour, attacking her for being too soft on immigration issues), while also appearing moderate enough to gain the centre-right and possibly even a share of Mélenchon’s supporters, who tend to be economically left but Eurosceptic and in some areas socially conservative.
This is by no means impossible: her campaign so far has put immigration and EU issues in the background compared to 2017, for example, she has dropped her proposal for a referendum on EU membership. This has deflected a lot of the controversy and media attacks that weakened her five years ago. Instead, her focus has been on economic issues, especially exploiting growing anger at the cost of living crisis and promising to improve the purchasing power of the worst-off in society. She has promised to cut VAT completely on essential food products.
Obstacles still remain: Mélenchon has told his supporters not to vote for her, she cannot completely shake her radical reputation, and she is still very unpopular among ethnic and religious minorities. This time, however, it seems possible, if not likely, that she could win the presidency.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon- 3rd place; 21.95%
Mélenchon has become the master of both the late-campaign surge, and the narrow loss. Six months ago, he was polling at merely 8% and sat in joint 5th position, and it was only a month before the election until he started appearing third in most polls. The tightness of the gap between him and Le Pen is one of the biggest surprises in the election, although it could have been expected from his similar performance in 2017. Then, he came fourth with 19.6%, though missed out on second place by only 1.7%, despite hovering around 11% only four weeks before the election.
His surprisingly high vote tally is most likely down to tactical voting on the left: with the other left-leaning candidates (of which there were five) all polling poorly, he emerged as a unifying figure and encouraged anyone opposed to both Macron and Le Pen’s vision for France to vote for him instead.
His party, France Unbowed (La France Insoumise), first emerged to promote democratic socialism in France, in opposition to what they saw as the centrist policies of the traditional left-wing parties. Its priorities are similar to other such movements, like Bernie Sanders’ faction in America and Momentum in the UK — they want urgent action to tackle the climate emergency, raising the minimum wage, stricter regulation of banks, reducing the length of the working week, and lowering the retirement age to 60. They are also anti-NATO and some factions are Eurosceptic.
Having finished the campaign in a strong position, his party and their voters are now in the position of king-makers: whoever they vote for in the 2nd round, if they vote at all, is likely to become President. If his supporters end up mostly abstaining, as recent polls have suggested, then it makes the situation more difficult for Macron, since he needs to win over the left more than Le Pen. However, the most recent polling data shows that 39% of Mélenchon’s voters are planning to vote for Macron, compared to only 20% for Le Pen and 41% who plan to spoil their ballot or stay home. This last number, while large, is decreasing and might continue to do so especially as Macron begins courting the left. Mélenchon himself has urged his voters to “not give one vote to Le Pen”, which is a clear enough message, even if he has not gone so far as to formally endorse Macron.
Eric Zemmour- 4th place; 7.07%
In a fairly distant fourth place came the other principal far-right candidate Eric Zemmour. Zemmour, a former TV host and pundit, ran a campaign in the political breathing space opened up by Le Pen’s moderation. He has focused explicitly on the issues Le Pen has been trying to avoid- immigration, law and order, and social issues.
Despite a brilliant start to his campaign, even polling second briefly in October, he was brought down by a series of mistakes and gaffes. Already dogged by three convictions for hate speech (including calling child migrants “thieves, killers [and] rapists”), he further shocked the electorate by his advocacy of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory and initially speaking against welcoming refugees from Ukraine.
Past comments of his speaking positively of Putin also weighed down his campaign in recent weeks, as well as his failure to talk about economic policies, when they consistently ranked upmost in the concerns of the French public.
Almost all his voters will likely go to Le Pen in the second round, and Zemmour himself has endorsed her, saying that he cannot vote for a man [Macron] “who has let in 2 million immigrants”.
Valérie Pécresse- 5th place; 4.78%
Pécresse, who described herself as 2/3 Merkel and 1/3 Thatcher, won the candidacy of the traditional conservative party, Les Républicains, after winning the second round of their primary election late in 2021. She is the first female nominee from the party. Despite the party and its predecessors having dominated French politics since the 1950s, the arrival of Macron has weakened them significantly.
Macron’s occupation of the centre-ground forced them into a historically low third place in 2017, with candidate François Fillon the first conservative candidate to fail to qualify for the 2nd round since the foundation of the Fifth Republic. Their failure to win power led many on the centrist wing of the party to join Macron’s government: Édouard Philippe and Jean Castex, Macron’s two Prime Ministers, are both former Republicans, as well as the Minister of the Economy.
The party found itself in a terrible political position this time around and struggled to find an identity for itself. Squeezed between Macron’s shift to the centre-right and Le Pen’s focus on economic issues (usually the main policy focus of the party), they couldn’t easily differentiate themselves.
This resulted in badly executed attempts to win back their position on the right, with Pécresse mentioning the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory in a speech, to widespread condemnation and accusations that she was normalizing the far-right.
Internal divisions within the party were also costly: high-profile defections such as that of a former budget minister to Macron further weakened her campaign. Former conservative President Sarkozy, who appointed Pécresse as a minister, refused to endorse her or attend any campaign events.
Her final vote tally of under 5% is shocking but not surprising for a party that has been struggling to find its identity since its last election win in 2007 and that has suffered a series of damaging scandals and splits. To add insult to injury though, receiving under 5% of the vote means the party will not get its campaign costs repaid.
Emblematic of the party’s division, while Pécresse has endorsed Macron, her rival for the nomination, Eric Ciotti, has refused to say he will do so.
Anne Hidalgo- 10th place; 1.75%
Skipping down several places we find the other established party, and one that managed to do even worse. Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, was the nominee for the socialist party (PS), the traditional party of the left wing, which produced former President Françoise Hollande and where Macron began his own career.
The left began the campaign in a bad position, after having come a distant 5th in 2017 and losing ground to Mélenchon’s more radically left-wing movement. This was further worsened this campaign by the failure of the left wing to agree on a single candidate, resulting in no less than 6 left to far-left candidates standing.
This naturally split the voter base, and Hidalgo found it hard to find a position for her and her party: too far to the centre and she was crowded out by the progressive faction of Macron’s party and alienated the party’s traditional working-class voters; too far to the left and it would be difficult to argue why they’re different to the array of communist and socialist options available, and would be out of touch with the great concern much of the electorate had about immigration and social issues.
This is not all Hidalgo’s fault — there is still a great deal of resentment towards the PS after Hollande’s unpopular government adopted a much more pro-business stance midway through his term, and many still blame them for the painful effects of the financial crash.
Ultimately Hidalgo failed to make a name for herself, or capture the media spotlight and quickly faded into irrelevance — unlike some of the other candidates who soared and then crashed, she never polled more than 7%.
Internal struggles also distracted from the party’s platform, with some rumours that Hollande even tried to get Hidalgo to step aside in his favour to revive the floundering campaign. White it ultimately never came to fruition, it was a very public vote of no confidence from the most senior figure within the party.
Hidalgo has already endorsed Macron for the 2nd round.
The Rest of the Left
The other four left-wing candidates failed to make a major impact on the campaign. Yannick Jadot of the Green party performed best, coming sixth with 4.63%. This is fairly impressive considering the Greens didn’t put forward a candidate in 2017, instead endorsing socialist candidate Hamon. It is about double their vote share in 2012.
Fabien Roussel of the Communist Party came eighth with 2.28%, and his most notable achievement was finishing ahead of Hidalgo.
The other two communist/Trotskyist candidates, Phillipe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud, have both run in previous presidential elections. They both received less than 1% of the vote.
The two final candidates were both largely irrelevant to the campaign and were rarely mentioned in the media, but both got above 2%.
Jean Lasalle is a perennial presidential candidate from the rural south. He is a former shepherd and advocates mostly on rural issues.
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan has also run before, and is the third in the far-right trio of candidates, although he failed to make the same impression as Le Pen or Zemmour. He similarly is anti-immigration, which made up the bulk of his campaign.