Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the contest for the French presidency has narrowed to a race between just two candidates: President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Another far-right contender, Éric Zemmour, and the traditional center-right candidate have joined the left in the political wilderness.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has had a powerful impact on the French presidential campaign. Before the Russian invasion, there were three Putin supporters among the leading candidates: the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right contenders Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour.
While Le Pen has proudly staged photo ops with Putin (in 2017), approved of his annexation of Crimea, and presided over a party that received loans from Russian banks, Zemmour has expressed his admiration for Putin, whom he has described as a “patriot.” And Mélenchon, for his part, has long advocated a French exit from NATO, reflecting his anti-Americanism and affinity for the Latin American left of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. All three candidates confidently insisted that Putin would not invade Ukraine.
Though Putin took all three candidates by surprise, Zemmour has been the only one to pay a political price so far. Le Pen immediately denounced the invasion and reoriented her campaign to focus on pocketbook issues like the sudden surge in energy prices. Mélenchon’s response has been more muddled: while saluting Ukrainians’ heroism, he balks at sending them weapons. As with Le Pen, his campaign is primarily focused on domestic social issues, and he has been avoiding discussion of the war whenever possible.
By contrast, Zemmour’s entire campaign has been about shunning immigrants, which has made adapting to the onset of war difficult. He has expressed reservations about welcoming Ukrainian refugees, and with nothing specific to say about rising energy prices, his candidacy has come to seem increasingly irrelevant. He is now polling far behind Le Pen, whom he had previously hoped to challenge for pre-eminence on the far right. In the campaign’s final stretch, the three leading contenders are the incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron, with around 27%, followed by Le Pen and Mélenchon, with around 23% and 16%, respectively.
Among the clearest effects of the war is that the candidate of the traditional, Republican right, Valérie Pécresse, has effectively fallen out of the running. In addition to mismanaging her campaign, her candidacy has been hit hard by a shift in support toward Macron, who has not just reaped the political benefits of the Ukrainian war but has also co-opted some of Pécresse’s policy proposals.
Pécresse has responded angrily to her change in fortune, accusing Macron of “counterfeiting” her program. But the problem for the Republican right is not just that Macron is peeling away some of Pécresse’s supporters. It is that he has systematically adopted its core positions, including retirement at 65, work requirements for welfare beneficiaries, and a reduction in the inheritance tax. This amounts to a full-scale takeover of the French center right. If Macron is re-elected, he will preside over a formidable big-tent party, and the Republicans will be left with crumbs, squeezed between a resurgent far right and a governing party that is intent on devouring them.
Macron’s goal is clear. He does not want to suffer the same fate as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose seven-year presidency left no trace in French political life. Like Charles de Gaulle following his return to power in 1958, Macron wants to rebuild the right from the ground up.
The calculation is simple. All told, the French right commands some 75% of the electorate – including supporters of Macron’s own party, La République en Marche. Within this broad cohort, there is room for two big forces: the far right, which accounts for 30-35% of the electorate, and a united front comprising the remainder of conservative voters. Together with Macron, this latter bloc could govern France for quite a long time, echoing the legacy of Gaullism and its multiple reincarnations after de Gaulle’s death.
Assuming that the far right seizes the opportunity, it could recompose itself and become a powerful bloc capable of taking power one day. Just as de Gaulle forced the socialist and communist left under François Mitterrand, Macron’s play for traditional conservatives could produce a consolidation of forces to his right. The far right need only position itself as the only alternative to the new Gaullist power.
As for the left, it seems hard-pressed to challenge this reality. Whatever its moral authority on ecological or social-justice issues, the left is playing a zero-sum game from a weak position, commanding the support of around 25% of the electorate. Nor has the war in Ukraine helped. The left is divided over the response and the role of Europe, France, and NATO in it. The Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, and the socialist candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, have accused Mélenchon of supporting autocrats, though with little effect on his relative popularity.
Behind the Ukraine dividing line, there are two clashing views about how to reconstitute the French left. The first is to match the radicalism on the far right, whose rise seems to reflect the demands of an electorate that feels betrayed by the mainstream. The second asserts that the left has become repellent to most of society precisely because it has lost its moderate elements. To return to power, it must appeal to voters who are interested in issues such as ecology but suspicious of radicalism. In fact, both views are true; the left’s problem is the absence of anyone capable of producing the necessary synthesis.
Thanks to Putin, it is now all but certain that Macron will face Le Pen in the second round, as he did in 2017. The polls predict that Macron will win, but with a margin much tighter than five years ago. Some polls suggest that Le Pen could receive as much as 47% of the second-round vote – an unprecedented level of support for a French far-right candidate. The increase in fuel prices has buoyed Le Pen’s candidacy. With none of Macron’s commitment to fiscal prudence, she can promise drastic cuts to fuel taxes.
Putin’s war has reshaped the French presidential race. Even if the outcome seems clear, it seems no less clear that the collateral effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are likely to complicate politics elsewhere in Europe as well.
Daniel Cohen, President of the Board of Directors of the Paris School of Economics, is the author, most recently, of The Inglorious Years: The Collapse of the Industrial Order and the Rise of Digital Society (Princeton University Press, 2021).
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