By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
As France goes to the polls on Sunday for the first-round presidential ballot, far right, pro-Russia and anti-NATO candidate Marine Le Pen is surging in the polls, a development that is worrying the financial markets.
Certainly, incumbent Emmanuel Macron remains the modest favorite to best her in the second-round, two-way run-off on April 24. But French politics is volatile, not least with the added effects of the Ukraine conflict. A Harris poll this week put Macron on 51.5 percent to Le Pen’s 48.5 percent in a second-round scenario, which is a far cry from when he beat her in 2017 with 66 percent of the vote.
Support for the far right in advance of the first round of voting is at its highest point yet: Le Pen and her extreme-right rival, Eric Zemmour, a former talk-show pundit, have more than 30 percent of first-round support between them (Le Pen has risen to 23 percent in recent days). Polls show Macron in first position during the first round at about 26.5 percent. The hard-leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is in third place at about 17 percent and also rising.
The unusual political times in which we live are highlighted by the fact that if Macron and Le Pen do end up facing off against each other in the run-off, or indeed if Zemmour or Melenchon unexpectedly break through instead, it would be only the second time in the country’s modern history that neither the party of the mainstream center-right, the Republicans, or the center-left, the Socialists, which have governed for almost all of the post-war era, have qualified for the final round of a presidential election.
So further unexpected twists and turns cannot be ruled out, especially in the context of distrust of the political class and economic pain for many voters, with investors growing jittery over a closer-than-expected race while France’s borrowing costs are increasing.
Therefore, with Europe experiencing its most volatile period in years, if not decades, after the invasion of Ukraine, Macron is by no means guaranteed reelection. So far, he has only partially succeeded in his goal of reducing the unemployment rate and re-industrializing France through innovation-led policies.
There remains widespread anti-establishment discontent in the country, including the so-called yellow-shirt protests, fueled by economic pain that could be intensified following the sanctions against Russia, and significantly higher gas, electricity and food prices are likely in the coming weeks.
French voters have for months cited the cost of living and their purchasing power as their No. 1 concern ahead of the elections, as inflation surges on the back of rising commodity prices and tight supply chains. This is despite the fact that the government estimates gross disposable income, which economists use as a gauge of purchasing power, grew twice as fast under Macron as under his two most recent predecessors.
Le Pen is seeking to capitalize on this economic pain in a number of ways, including by proposing cuts to taxes on fuel and presenting herself as an anti-globalization champion through her opposition to international trade, NATO and the EU. Her wider platform is centered around an anti-immigration project that would prioritize native French people for housing, jobs and benefits, and a ban on the Muslim headscarf in all public spaces, despite the fact that this is against the French constitution.
The fact that she appears likely to get through to the second-round run-off will dismay many in France and internationally. Should she pull off a surprise victory, it could be a more savage blow to Brussels than Brexit, given France’s eurozone membership and the fact that, alongside Germany, the country traditionally has been the “twin-engine” of EU integration.
Macron had surged in the polls last month, styling himself as a wartime leader following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, he has slipped in opinion surveys since then, with an increasing number of people arguing he has devoted too much time to diplomatic talks with world leaders and coordination with European and other Western allies.
Aware of this criticism, he is going after Le Pen hard during the final phase of the campaign, including on the issue of Russia which has forced her to distance herself from Vladimir Putin. Campaign leaflets that showed Le Pen shaking Putin’s hand, more than 1 million copies of which had already been printed according to media sources, reportedly were withdrawn by her campaign team.
Macron’s main goal is to fill the vacuum of power in the political center ground that was created by the collapse in support for the Socialists and Republicans. His pitch is that despite his faults he is a much better choice for moderate-middle voters than Le Pen or Melenchon.
Le Pen’s late surge makes for a highly unpredictable finish to the election campaign. While Macron still has the edge, his lead is not insurmountable and the possibility of a big upset cannot be dismissed.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.