French twist: Spectacular surprises are the norm in France's presidential elections

·16-min read

It's the unsettling backdrop of French politics in 2021 – a feeling of déjà vu. A year ahead of presidential elections, poll after poll puts President Emmanuel Macron in a 2022 rematch against far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But French voters say they don't want to relive that 2017 duel a year from now. And history, at least, is on their side: France's presidential elections are often rife with spectacular surprises.

Back in 2017, Macron's victory was the last in a series of improbable plot twists. As a never-before-elected centrist, Macron, then only 39, mounted an unlikely bid for the presidency as an independent at the head of his own fledgling movement, famously seeing off long-established parties to make it to the presidential run-off. His meteoric rise culminated in beating the populist Le Pen in her second bid for power. He scored 66.1 percent of the vote to her 33.9, becoming the youngest president ever elected in France. Macron's tour de force left traditional parties reeling, a state of disarray from which they have yet to recover.

Four years on, France has weathered storm after storm of disquiet and dissent – deadly terrorist attacks, fiery Yellow Vest protests, a pension reform revolt that shut down large swaths of the country and a once-in-a-century pandemic. And yet here we are again.

"The battlefield remains outrageously dominated by the two 2017 finalists," the Journal du Dimanche said earlier this month, after polling it commissioned from the Ifop firm indicated a likely Macron-Le Pen rematch. Testing 10 different first-round hypotheses all brought the same result, with Macron ultimately topping Le Pen 54 to 46 percent in the run-off. "No other configuration but the Macron-Le Pen duel seems, for the moment, plausible," the weekly concluded.

Le Monde published a similar survey outcome this past weekend, with the 2017 "finalists comfortably ahead in every scenario envisaged" in a panel of 10,000 voters polled by the Ipsos firm, with the incumbent topping his populist rival 57 to 43 percent in the run-off. "The Macron-Le Pen duel, for the moment, trounces every other alternative," the newspaper said.

A deceptive stasis?

But polls are not predictions, only snapshots of potential voters' feelings at a moment in time. They describe a mood; although cumulatively – insofar as politicians use them to shape strategy, cast doubt on rivals and build momentum – they count.

A vast majority in France – 70 percent in another Ifop poll – say they don't want a Macron-Le Pen replay next year. But so omnipresent is the polling on that scenario that nearly half (48 percent) of those surveyed by the Elabe polling firm last month even deemed Le Pen "certain or probable" to win the presidency in 2022, up seven points in a six-month span.

Specialists say the Covid-19 crisis has had the effect, for now, of "congealing" the political landscape. Aspiring challengers – and there are many – have made little discernible headway in a race seemingly frozen in time. And, amid a third Covid-19 lockdown, the French voters they seek to persuade don't quite have their usual taste for it. The 10,000-voter Ipsos panel over the weekend showed 63 percent were interested in the election compared to 71 percent in May 2016, a year ahead of the last election.

But those whose job it is to monitor the political landscape suggest this eerie equilibrium is an optical illusion. France's 2022 election is different for its very unusual constraints but also because it could break wide open at any time, depending in large part on how and when the pandemic winds down in France.

"That is what is going to be interesting, too; it's that [a race] has never been so open and volatile," political consultant and Sciences Po professor Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet told FRANCE 24.

"The pandemic is delaying the moment for presidential debate," political historian Christian Delporte told FRANCE 24. "We are in a state of very, very great uncertainty. And the very fact that Macron's election reconstructed a political family clouds things considerably. We can imagine that this election campaign sorts itself out very late and spurs the emergence of someone," said Delporte, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Versailles.

France's presidential election is "very, very distinctive", Delporte explained. "Candidates have never, since the 1980s, had a high score in the first round. So it all hangs on very, very little."

Little more than a fifth of the vote can clinch a place in the final. In the first round of 2017's presidential election, for instance, Macron scored 24.01 percent and Le Pen 21.3 percent to advance to the run-off. Close behind, the third- and fourth-place finishers' race was over, with 20.01 percent and 19.58 percent, respectively.

Delporte also points out that no French incumbent in 40 years has won re-election on his record – the only presidents to win a second term did so running against sitting prime ministers from the opposition that they could readily hang the blame on, which is not the case for Macron.

"We always vote for change," the historian noted.

2017: Macron makes out like a bandit

France's track record is clear: surprises are the norm. For generations, the likeliest pairing of candidates a year out from any French presidential election has hardly ever made it to the following May as the final two sparring partners on the ballot. The French twist, up to and including Macron's uncanny 2017 win, has been a cinch.

A year before Macron's election, Socialist incumbent François Hollande had yet to rule out a bid for re-election. Macron's fledgling independent movement En Marche was merely days old. Pollsters were still testing Macron, Hollande's former economy minister, as a candidate for the Socialist Party. But even then, the future president was not expected to make the 2017 run-off; Le Pen and ultra-favourite conservative former prime minister Alain Juppé were well out in front.

What followed was a veritable soap opera of surprises. The unpopular Hollande threw in the towel before the race. Macron went rogue. Juppé lost the conservative primary to fellow former PM François Fillon. Touting himself as a paragon of integrity, Fillon looked like a shoo-in for the Élysée Palace – until he and wife Penelope were disgraced by a fake-jobs scandal. In beating established parties to the run-off and easily beating Le Pen to the presidency, Macron was said to have pulled off "the heist of the century".

It's a brash claim, since France has seen its fair share of political larceny this century.

2012: DSK snatches defeat from the jaws of victory

In April 2011, a year before France went to the polls, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was poised for presidential glory, comfortably ahead of competitors for the Socialist Party nomination. But Strauss-Kahn's hopes evaporated after he was charged with the attempted rape of a Sofitel housekeeper in Manhattan. With the popular favourite swept off the presidential field, Hollande – long mocked as "Monsieur 3%" for his chances when the race began – went on to beat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy the following year.

2007: Ségolène Royal surprises her own party

Polls did predict that Sarkozy and his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, being the 2007 finalists more than a year in advance. Back then, former cabinet minister Royal was the dark horse in the race. The grassroots fervour she cultivated among Socialist supporters – dubbed "Ségomania", no less – came as such a surprise to the party brass that they were convinced she was a flash in the pan. But Royal attracted legions of new members to the party, won the primary vote and drew overflow crowds to lively rallies – including a star-studded May Day concert for 40,000 in Paris, virtually unimaginable today – before being run down by Sarkozy's well-oiled machine in the presidential run-off.

2002: Le Pen père shocker

The archetype of an election shocker in France was 2002's first-round result, when far-right National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father, eliminated a sitting prime minister to advance to the run-off against conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac. Just five days before that April's first-round ballot, when asked who would get his vote in the final if he didn't get there himself, Socialist premier Lionel Jospin threw his head back in a belly laugh at the fanciful suggestion. “I have a normal imagination, but tempered by reason, so..." Was it, Jospin was asked, impossible? “Let’s not say that, but it seems pretty unlikely to me, huh?” he blithely replied.

Surprises may be what a French presidential contest is made of, but 2022 is a different beast on several fronts. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, those surprises were rooted in mass rallies, grassroots lobbying, shaking hands and kissing babies – all unfeasible for now. Before Macron, the contests were also the domain of relatively robust political parties, the same mainstream forces that now still lie in tatters. Until now, Le Pen's National Rally party (the former National Front) was a political bogeyman that could unite disparate forces to keep it out of power. But even that is changing.

Pandemic pandemonium

As France lingers near the peak of the third wave of a pandemic that has left more than 100,000 dead – still under curfew and with public gatherings curtailed – old-fashioned campaigning is a distant prospect at best. Half a dozen hopefuls on the left and as many on the right have either declared bids or pointedly expressed interest. Others, like Macron's ever-popular former prime minister Édouard Philippe touting his new book or leftist icon Christiane Taubira, have let speculation swirl freely about their presidential potential. But with pandemic restrictions still in place, is it possible for newcomer candidates to gain traction or even emerge victorious, à la Macron?

One case in point: Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. One of the few Socialist success stories in the party's glum recent past, Hidalgo aimed to broaden her renown beyond the capital with her personal "tour de France" this spring before officially throwing her hat in the race. But she has had to pause that project as infections climbed again. Could yesteryear's outsiders, like Ségolène Royal or Macron himself, have risen to prominence without networking in the flesh?

"Since France has yet to ascribe to a zero-Covid strategy, a campaign that plays out as usual with big rallies isn't conceivable. It will be excessively complicated. Politicians will be tempted to do it, but there's reality," Moreau-Chevrolet told FRANCE 24.

His latest book is a graphic novel about a consultant charged with helping a popular TV star run for president. Moreau-Chevrolet says today's circumstances create unusual opportunities for outside challengers. "We run the risk of having more of a virtual campaign for 2022," he said. That's what makes it possible to imagine just about any hypothesis, any combination. Because with that type of campaign, if it's really digital, we can easily imagine in a few weeks or months things changing radically for one or the other candidate."

"The situation will be new and very fragile, because people will literally be deciding alone, at home, through social networks, with a larger conspiracy-theory component at work. So it's hard to imagine," the political analyst said. "That's why the serious pollsters say the situation is frozen. There are far too many unknowns and we cannot exclude last-minute surprises."

After all, a presidential campaign in France is nothing like its multi-billion-dollar American equivalent. The run-up is shorter and, with a strict €22.5 million spending cap for a finalist, the bar to entry is much lower.

"People can say to themselves, hey, there's an opportunity here to win the election on a really virtual campaign, where someone even with a bit of a marginal or divisive profile can manage to unite a quarter of public opinion," Moreau-Chevrolet said. "It's not unreasonable to think that could work. It's not crazy. You need, what, 10 million euros to get off the ground? That's findable because Macron found it. You'd need a clever campaign. And the ideas aren't lacking, especially among the outsiders."

The endgame enigma

If, and when, French voters deem that France has successfully emerged from the pandemic is also critical.

Right-wing entrepreneur and former MEP Philippe de Villiers speculated this month that his one-time ally Macron would be in no position to bid for a second term after Covid-19.

"When you have locked away a people for a year, the people remember it," he told BFM TV. He noted that Winston Churchill, who steered Britain through World War II, failed to win re-election.

“When your name is associated with misfortune, you leave with the misfortune," De Villiers said.

Moreau-Chevrolet, for his part, believes Macron mismanaged the Covid-19 crisis with a "semi-populist" approach of light lockdowns and an initially cautious vaccine roll-out that has only prolonged the agony.

He said this approach may wind up costing the president a key part of his base. "Macron's appeal to elites is a real issue," said Moreau-Chevrolet. "Many elites have friends in London, in Tel Aviv, in New York," he noted. "It will be very, very difficult to calmly evaluate the French government's actions if we see life getting back to normal in New York, London and Tel Aviv while in Paris we are still in a sort of Third World. It will not go over well."

Will an eventual easing of the pandemic finally ring in the roaring ‘20s or find a country licking its wounds? Once the crisis is well and truly past, will the French be willing to let bygones be bygones?

It depends, said Delporte. Current public opinion surveys show the French are, of course, preoccupied by the pandemic, but also with social and economic issues, the historian observed. "If we exit the pandemic, say, in the autumn and we have a cascade of company bankruptcies [after emergency subsidies are withdrawn] and unemployment rises, it will be very, very hard for Macron," he said, adding that such a scenario could open a path for ex-PM Philippe to step in as a recourse candidate.

Delporte said the real indicator to watch ahead of an election is a public opinion gauge called the barometer of French morale. "It is never wrong. That can show us the result of the campaign, of the election," Delporte said. "Right now, morale isn't very good. But it can be explained by the pandemic. But we'll need to see, when the pandemic is over, if coming out of it makes people more optimistic or not. If an economic and social crisis takes over from the pandemic, it will necessarily turn [the tide] against Macron."

Injured parties

Macron's master stroke in 2017 – winning office and poaching talent from the left, the right and civil society to govern – proved one didn't need a long-entrenched party machine to win the presidency. But it also left existing parties fragmented, soul-searching shells of themselves.

Since 2017 Macron has tacked to the right, leaving political space to his left unclaimed. But backbiting leftist forces in France remain unreconciled and disjointed, threatening to split that vote between far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the Socialist Party (PS) and the green EELV party, contending with its own internal divisions.

Efforts are under way to unite the left – a recurring challenge in French elections akin to herding cats. But former Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, who left the party after scoring a humbling 6 percent in the first round in 2017, got straight to the point at the left's stage-managed would-be peace talks at a Paris Holiday Inn this month. "If La France Insoumise isn't in it, this thing isn't going to work. We've done joint PS-EELV nominations before and that isn't a unified nominee," Le Monde quoted Hamon as saying.

Meanwhile, the conservative Les Républicains – from whom Macron plundered both of his successive prime ministers and which saw two of its luminaries, Fillon and Sarkozy, successively convicted on corruption charges – finds itself with a glut of potential nominees, but no agreed method for choosing one. Some want a party primary, despite divisive past experience. Former cabinet minister Xavier Bertrand is against a primary, counting instead on polling highest and winning re-election as president of the northern Hauts-de-France in upcoming June regional elections. Having gambled on declaring his Élysée bid early, Bertrand stands a distant third in polls after Macron and Le Pen but still ahead of his conservative rivals.

Meanwhile, the far-right National Rally isn't polling as low as the political bogeyman it once was. A decade after taking the reins from her rabble-rousing father, Marine Le Pen has arguably managed to "de-demonise" the party in public opinion to a significant degree while dropping marginalising ideas like leaving the European Union or the euro currency.

"Never, a year ahead of the vote, has a National Front (now the National Rally) party candidate ever obtained this kind of score," Ifop pollster Frédéric Dabi told the Journal du Dimanche, referring to the April poll that put Le Pen at 46 percent in a 2022 run-off. Her party even ranks ahead of any other in the 25-to-34 age range – "these young people who aren't managing to get a foot in the door, who will pay the devastating consequences of the economic crisis", as Dabi told Le Monde.

The daily Libération spurred controversy last month with a front-page report on the left-wing voters who would rather abstain next May than choose between Macron and Le Pen, suggesting holes were appearing in the united front that long saw French voters of all stripes turn out to keep the far right from office.

"Actually, the Le Pen-Macron duel is what Macron wants" from a strategic perspective, said Delporte. "That's the bet, that up against Le Pen he will mobilise [enough voters] to win. But it's a very risky gamble." Surprise, surprise.