In Brief

France’s presidential race: a ‘rancid’, illiberal campaign

With the Left and Right both divided, Emmanuel Macron is in pole position to win again

It’s five years since the launch of the En Marche! party shook France’s political establishment and propelled Emmanuel Macron to the Élysée, said Françoise Fressoz in Le Monde (Paris). And with voting in our first presidential election since 2017 due to begin on 10 April, the incumbent is in pole position to win again – without even having declared his candidacy. Instead, he has focused his energies on “world affairs”, such as the Ukraine crisis, and seeking to boost France’s standing in Europe.

Macron, who is sure to stand, isn’t without his problems: voters are “exhausted” by two years of the pandemic; trust in politics is at rock bottom; and many voters recall the “yellow vest” protests that plagued the second year of his presidency. But his rivals have so far failed to capitalise on his weaknesses. The Left “exhausts itself in internal quarrels”; the centre-right Republican party is “fighting for its survival”; and the far-right is split between the TV polemicist Éric Zemmour’s Reconquest party and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

The polls look good for Macron, agreed Le Point (Paris). The incumbent is “well ahead” on 25%; his closest rival, Le Pen, is on 17%; and Zemmour is on 15%. Behind them, centre-right Republican Valérie Pécresse is on 14%; the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon is on 11%; and the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo of the once-mighty Socialist party, is polling at a mere 2%.

“Have France’s conservatives once again backed the wrong horse in the race for the Élysée,” asked Benjamin Dodman on France 24 (Paris). Pécresse was considered the only serious threat to Macron when she won the Republican nomination on a platform she described as “one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel”.

Yet with Macron occupying her economic territory, “and the far-right stealing her thunder on the issues of crime and immigration”, she’ll be lucky to reach a likely run-off between the final two candidates on 24 April. Several high-profile figures in her party have defected to En Marche!. Last week, she tried to revive her fortunes at a rally in Paris, by making a lurch to the right; but even those in her own party thought it was a “Titanic flop”.

It was a disgrace, said Laurent Sagalovitsch on Slate.fr (Paris). As well as vowing to fight immigration, Islamism and cancel culture, Pécresse used the speech to cite the “great replacement” theory, a conspiracy theory which holds that white Europeans are being deliberately supplanted by non-white immigrants. Name-checking the theory – which has inspired white supremacists who have carried out mass killings – was a shameless bid to win votes from Zemmour, who has put it at the centre of his campaign.

The French Left, meanwhile, is in disarray, said Cécile Prieur in L’Obs (Paris). Half a dozen candidates are vying for the same section of the electorate, with polls giving them a combined total of less than a quarter of the vote. Most of them are more interested in quarrelling among themselves than in winning back centre-left voters who flocked to Macron in 2017. Now the lack of a viable candidate from the centre-left – which held the presidency until Macron took power – has left the field open to far-right hopefuls popular with working-class voters.

The overwhelming theme of this “rancid” campaign, said Philippe Marlière on Open Democracy (London), has been the way the far-right has dictated its terms. The rise of Zemmour – who just last month was convicted of hate speech for labelling migrant children “rapists” and “thieves” – has emboldened other right-wingers to follow him in stigmatising Muslims, in particular. And since Macron, too, has shown himself to be willing to echo “illiberal rhetoric on law and order” and Islam, the “reactionary climate” in French politics looks set to endure.

With Left and Right both divided, said Daniel Cohen in Project Syndicate (New York), Macron’s “remarkable hold on French political life” currently looks highly likely to continue. But surprises may yet lie ahead. “After all, the main protagonist has not yet entered the scene.”

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