Small Gap Separates The Two
If re-elected, Macron will be the first president since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to be returned to the Elysee Palace. The centrist leader has so far kept his neck ahead, but opinion polls suggest the race is tighter this time.
A field of 12 candidates was whittled down to two after the first round of polling, which Macron won with 27.8% votes against secondplaced Le Pen’s 23.2%. Since neither secured an outright majority, they face off again in the runoff. But it may not be a repeat of 2017, when Macron with his newly-formed Republic On The Move (LREM) party won 66% of the vote to trump Le Pen.
Pollsters have predicted that the margin could swing from 54-46% to as close as 51-49% in the final round in favour of Macron. With the battle on a knife’s edge, the two finalists have gone all out to woo those among the more than 48 million French voters who went with neither in the first round. While Le Pen would be looking to rally right-wing supporters to her side, Macron has warned that the result is not a foregone conclusion and reminded voters of the consequences of having a rightwing party in power.
Le Pen Has Changed Tack
Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally and daughter of anti-immigration champion Jean-Marie Le Pen, has mounted a strong challenge, focusing on issues seen as being close to the voter on the street even as Macron’s campaign got off to a late start as the war in Ukraine took up his attention. Erosion of spending power has been the main line of attack for Le Pen, whose radical agenda includes banning Muslim headscarves in streets, and halal and kosher meat, while cutting down on immigration from outside Europe. But she’s had to tone down her Eurosceptic stance at a time when voters may be more acutely conscious of the benefits of the collective security and heft offered by France’s membership of EU and NATO in the wake of the war unleashed by Russian president Vladimir Putin on Ukraine. As the elections seemed to take a back seat amid the Ukraine war, Macron saw his stock rise as the leader rallying EU’s response to Moscow while his far-right opponents found themselves hiding their blushes over their open admiration of Putin. Even though his initial advantage may have waned, reports say that Macron heads into the polls with France clocking its strongest annual economic growth in close to 50 years and unemployment at its lowest in over a decade. But rising energy prices, the Covid shock and galloping inflation have pinched pockets and pose a worry for Macron.
What Will Outcome Mean?
A “Frexit” may no longer be one of the possible scenarios in the event of a Le Pen win, but a far-right government in the EU’s second-largest economy, its only nuclear power and sole member with a UN veto would serve to considerably undermine the post-war liberal consensus in Europe. It would certainly mean a more inward-looking France with Le Pen’s commitment to returning to a Europe of strong nation states. On the other hand, with former German chancellor Angela Merkel bowing out, Macron has emerged as the most prominent face of European solidarity. While French politicians have generally taken a dim view of NATO, Macron has been the biggest backer of the military alliance and his re-election would further bolster its position on the continent, something that may not be guaranteed with Le Pen. Also, a loss for Macron would further cement the rise of the radical strain in European politics with rightwing leaders in office in EU member states like Hungary and Poland. Mirroring that trend, far-right and far-left candidates together polled more votes than their mainstream counterparts in the first round of the election in France.