French newspaper Le Monde ran an article January 22 showing where the French presidential election stands. The election will take place over two rounds, the first round on Sunday April 10 and a second round two weeks later when the top-two finishers face off on Sunday April 24.
Le Monde lists eight principal candidates from across the political spectrum for the first round.
Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is the favorite. He is a political prodigy who won the presidency in 2017 at age 39 after having built an entirely new political party, LREM or La République En March, out of a grass roots movement using sophisticated social media mobilization techniques.
Macron holds about 25 percent of first-round voting intentions compared with Marine Le Pen at 18 percent, Valérie Pécresse at 16 percent, and Eric Zemmour at 12 percent. Macron has built a base of support across a wide swath of the middle of the political spectrum among centrist and center-left voters.
In December, Pécresse shot up to number two displacing perennial number two Le Pen when Pécresse won the party primary of the Les Republicains. After her well-publicized nomination, some polls even showed her defeating Macron in the second round. Since then, Pécresse has fallen back into third place.
Most observers view Pécresse as the most dangerous challenger to Macron in the second round if she can get there. She is a credible major candidate with whom a majority of voters would feel comfortable as president. She is the president of the Île-de-France region, which accounts for nearly a third of the French GDP with about one-fifth of its population. Nevertheless, Pécresse finds it challenging to present a compelling case for replacing a more-than-satisfactory incumbent.
The electoral challenge for Pécresse is to attract enough far-right voters back to the traditional Gaullist right to give her second place in the first round and a chance to face Macron in the finals. Just how wedded to Zemmour and Le Pen are far-right voters becomes a big question? The short answer is these voters are pretty sticky to the far right.
Le Monde reports that a majority of the electorate does not perceive any of Macron’s competitors as capable of doing better than him as president. Therefore, this is not a change election for most voters; the status quo under Macron is viewed favorably. About 59 percent of the electorate thinks Macron will qualify in the first round and go on to win the second round. A degree of inevitably surrounds Marcon’s candidacy.
So with eight major candidates, the race breaks down to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Can anything break the spell of this fairy tale?
Some observers, noting the heterogeneity of the voting base that elected Macron in 2017, felt he would be potentially fragile at both ends of his coalition. However, current polls do not prove out this conjecture.
Le Monde lists five factors behind Macron’s support.
The first four factors reflect concerns among French voters which favor the incumbent. These are purchasing power (inflation), Covid-19, the health system, and the environment. The contentious issues of immigration and delinquency (law and order) rank lower among most voters’ concerns, although quite high with voters supporting the two extreme right candidates, Le Pen and Zemmour.
Among working and professional people—the world of work—Macron dominates in support due to the incumbent friendly issues. In contrast, Le Monde notes that Pécresse struggles to convince in the world of work. Although the greater Paris region has pronounced gaps in income, wealth, and social assimilation, Pécresse has an elite Parisian image that does not connect well with many in the so-called popular classes, particularly outside of the greater Paris region. The nationalist part of the old Gaullist coalition has shifted far right.
Another article in Le Monde observes that the candidates rated with the most substantial symbolic capital are Macron 57 percent, Le Pen 30 percent, Pécresse 20 percent, and Zemmour 20 percent. Thus, there is a big stature gap between Macron and all the others reinforcing his incumbency in a comfortable status quo that is satisfactory to a large majority of voters.
The fifth factor is strategic positioning. Le Monde’s polling analysis is summarized in a chart that measures voters’ second choice candidates. This analysis shows that Pécresse is the second choice among Macron voters and Macron is the second choice among Pécresse voters.
In contrast, the supporters of the two far-right candidates also basically trade second choices among themselves; few crossover to Pécresse. This lack of fluidity on the right suggests these voters are interested in making a statement with their first-round votes. In contrast, Macron is a solid second choice among liberal voters although he pulls nothing from hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Mélanchon.
The strategic positioning matrix indicates Pécresse can’t tack hard right and pull many voters from the far-right flank back to the traditional right. So what does the center offer her?
Accordingly, potential fluidity is in the center between the two most centrist and electorally credible candidates, Macron and Pécresse. But there is little dissatisfaction among centrist voters to move from Macron to Pécresse. She has no compelling set of issues with which to peel off support from Macron.
A tantalizing statistic for many observers has been that the first-round preferences between the two far-right candidates plus the center-right candidate add up to around 50 percent. Could this near majority be mobilized to deliver a second-round victory to a conservative candidate?
Key to an overall conservative victory could occur if Pécresse comes in second in the first round and then rallies the far-right in the intervening two weeks before the final? That’s two tantalizing “if’s” in a row. Line them up and there could be a change in the French presidency.
But if far-right voters think Macron is going to win the second round anyway, they may remain content to cast their first round in support of Zemmour or Le Pen to demonstrate the strength of their convictions. These voters are nosily robust in support of far-right politics and politicians.
So with less than 80 days to go to the election, Macron remains in the poll position.