Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected for a second five-year term. Yet this, argues Alistair Cole, is not a simple success story. The 2022 French presidential election revealed disturbing trends in French democracy
French presidential elections are key contests in France’s democratic game. Since the 1962 constitutional reform, elections have been direct and fought over two rounds. The 2022 contest was the 11th in the history of the Fifth Republic. The incumbent President, Emmanuel Macron, was re-elected for a second five-year term. Macron received 58.44% of the vote, against nationalist right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen's 41.46%.
Macron’s re-election for a second presidential term, for the first time in the Fifth Republic outside of the specific context of ‘cohabitation’, was predictable. It bore testament to the continuing consequences of the landmark election of 2017. These include the decline of the main Fifth Republic parties (Socialists and Republicans – former Gaullists); the divisions of the various formations of the left and right; and a rallying round the incumbent President, in spite of dangerous levels of mistrust fuelled by his handling of the pandemic and international crises.
|Candidate||Affiliation||% of vote||Votes|
|Emmanuel Macron||La République en marche!||27.85||9,783,058|
|Marine Le Pen||Rassemblement national||23.15||8,133,828|
|Jean Luc Mélenchon||La France insoumise||21.95||7,712,520|
|Valérie Pécresse||Les républicains||4.78||1,679,001|
|Yannick Jadot||Europe écologie les verts||4.63||1,627,853|
|Fabien Roussel||Parti communiste français||2.28||802,422|
|Nicolas Dupont-Aignon||Debout la France||2.06||725,176|
|Anne Hidalgo||Parti socialiste||1.75||616,478|
|Philippe Poutou||Nouveau parti anti-capitaliste||0.77||268,904|
|Nathalie Arthaud||Lutte ouvrière||0.56||197,094|
|Candidate||% of vote||Votes|
|Marine Le Pen||41.46||13,297,760|
In 2022, there was a sense of déjà vu. Once again, Macron and Le Pen faced each other in the second-round run-off.
But the real action had already taken place – five years ago, in the 2017 election. This election witnessed the collapse of the old partisan order, based on rival centre-left and centre-right dominated coalitions. In its place emerged a ‘progressives versus patriots’ cleavage. Critics of the Macron presidency lamented the so-called ‘Jupiterean’ president, hierarchical in instinct and distrustful of civil society.
This time around, Macron was criticised for declaring his candidacy very late (early March) and only then proposing a few controversial policies, such as raising the retirement age to 65 and changing the conditions for attribution of minimal income. Macron’s stellar first round performance was built on three pillars. These were, firstly, his continuing attractiveness to the centre-left base of ex-Socialist Party voters. Secondly, the support of around half of 2017 centre-right (Fillon) voters. And thirdly, a demographic electoral base tilted towards the right, with high levels of support from the over-60s, the intellectual professions and business, and in traditional conservative areas across the country.
Rather than being a simple success story, the election revealed disturbing trends in French democracy. Firstly, there was a continued consolidation of the far right, which gained 33.2% of the vote on the first round. Secondly, there was a rise in abstentions – 26% on the first round, and 28% on the second round. Thirdly, there was a collapse of traditional centre-left and centre-right pivots. The vote share of the Republican Pécresse reduced to 4.79%, barely ahead of the Socialist Hidalgo, on 1.75%. And, finally, above all, there was a strong showing of anti-system candidates – Le Pen, Mélenchon, Zemmour, Dupont-Aignon and Lassalle – who together captured almost 60% (58.69%) of the first-round vote.
Indeed, the 2022 contest accelerated existing trends. In the second round, more people (almost 14 million) abstained or cast a spoilt ballot than voted for Le Pen (13.3 million). This group, however trailed Macron – who gained over 18 million votes (58.44%), despite having attracted only 38.52% of registered electors in the first round.
The 2022 election was not a foregone conclusion, and it threw up its own surprises, not least the tight race for second place. This was a battle between the nationalist Marine Le Pen, strongest in small-town and rural France, and among the middle-aged and ouvriers, and the left-wing Jean Luc Mélenchon, strong in city centres and among the young.
However, the second round eventually saw the comfortable re-election of Macron. The instincts of the republican front (Macron) against the far-right Le Pen took hold. Though candidates such as Mélenchon and Pécresse did not explicitly call on their supporters to back Macron, the incumbent President benefited from a republican, anti-far right wave to resist Marine Le Pen.
The three leading candidates, each of whom also fought in 2017, all strengthened their positions. The tripartite division of political space characterised this election, with almost 75% of the electorate voting for the leading three candidates.
This tripartite structure, however, is not that new. There have been controversies in relation to the bipolar versus tripolar logic of the party system ever since the breakthrough of the Front National in the early 1980s.
Looking further back, the 2022 election bore some similarities to that of 1951. It recalled the political scientist Maurice Duverger's description of the French centre as the marais of the French fourth Republic (1945–1958). This was characterised by a triangular political space, with an amorphous centre, flanked by two extremes purportedly against the ‘system’ (the Communists and the Gaullists in the 1951 election). The centre block mobilised a winning coalition in defence of the Republic.
But barely seven years after the 1951 election, the fourth Republic collapsed. A new political regime, the Fifth Republic, came into existence…