Macron's rightward shift in office will allow him to occupy a favorable electoral niche unavailable to him in 2017.
31 March 2021
Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic (2017-present)
"He was the liberal bulwark against rising populism in Europe — an anti-Trump. But with an eye on his next election, President Emmanuel Macron has tacked to the right, alienating former supporters and current members of his own party."
Published in December 2020, this passage from the New York Times piece "Macron, Once a Darling of Liberals, Shows a New Face as Elections Near" is representative of changing liberal attitudes towards a man once seen as the savior of the liberal democratic order. Over the past year, Macron's right-wing turn on matters of crime and immigration have been met with disappointment by liberal observers, who were drawn to the portrayal Macron as a lonely defender of progressive values in a reactionary political environment.
The love affair with Macron in Anglosphere media began during the 2017 presidential election, where the narrative that the young former investment banker constituted "France's best hope against a far-right takeover" quickly took root. The shock that accompanied the twin victories of Leave in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 led the specter of "populism" to became the hottest topic among the transatlantic commentariat. Macron's Europhilia and embrace of social liberalism contrasted with the jingoism of Marine Le Pen, giving him near-hero status as he begun climbing in the polls in early 2017. An article from The Guardian published in this period described Macron as "Pro-EU, socially liberal[,] and a political outsider", presenting him as a potential foil against an otherwise likely far-right takeover of France.
Following Macron's comfortable victory against Le Pen in the second round of the election, international outlets rejoiced. American outlet Vox, for instance, triumphantly declared that "France is back, baby", and celebrated the newly-elected President of France for "tak[ing] a strong stance with both Trump and Putin". Macron and his team leaned into his newfound international celebrity, with his call to "Make Earth Great Again" being received as a brilliant act of "trolling" in American media. Indeed, in the United States, some figures affiliated with the Democratic Party saw Macron's triumph as a sign that the party should move further towards the political centre following Hillary Clinton's defeat.
It wouldn't take long for Macron to shift firmly towards the centre-right in office, with his push for the liberalization of labor laws proving to be one of the first major battles of his presidency. Though Macron's "labor reform" initiative was to be expected given his ministerial tenure and his campaign platform, his conservative shift on other issues, especially immigration, came as a surprise to some observers. Nevertheless, despite his shift to the political Right as early as Fall 2017, many liberals still boosted Macron as a climate champion and advocate for migrants whose election victory showed the path forward for progressives abroad until very recently.
While it took more than halfway through Macron's quinquennium for the international centre-left to partially distance themselves from him, the political situation at home has been an entirely different story. As the 2019 European Parliament elections showed, Macron's rightward shift in office has been accompanied by a similar shift in the electorate of La République En Marche! (LREM), Macron's political outfit. Per analysis by OpinionWay, 51% of self-identified right-wing voters supported LREM in the 2019 election, almost double (26%) the support Macron himself received from this demographic just two years prior. On the other hand, only 19% of self-identified left-wing voters voted for the party in 2019, despite the fact that 39% of this group supported Macron in the 2017 election.
As a result, though he is unlikely to receive the support of around two-thirds of the centre-left electorate in the first round of the 2022 election as he did five years prior, Macron's conservative shift in office means he is likely to cannibalize the base of the declining Les Républicains (LR). Through making inroads with conservative voters who supported François Fillon last cycle while maintaining enough of his 2017 base, Macron's coalition will likely be strong enough to allow him to make the runoff in 2022.
Furthermore, given the loyalty of Le Pen's base and the fact that the left-wing vote looks likely to be split in multiple directions, it is probable that 2022 will be a rematch of the 2017 contest. While recent polling suggests a surge in support for Le Pen, it would be wrong to underestimate the willingness of left-wing voters to hold their nose to support Macron in such a matchup to box out the far-right. French politics is famously turbulent, and one should not dismiss the possibility that Le Pen's National Rally will end up in power come 2022. Nevertheless, in spite of the heat he has received from all directions over the past four years, Macron's shift rightwards in office looks likely to reap dividends in his reelection bid for this reason, contrary to expectations it has damaged his standing.
Despite the portrayal of Macron's 2017 campaign as a novel phenomenon, centrisme is far from a new tendency in French politics. Indeed, as the origin of the "left-right" dichotomy, the concept of a distinct "political center" has been a staple of French political culture for longer than many neighbors. After two stints at Bercy (the Ministry of the Economy and Finance), Valéry Giscard d'Estaing would successfully position himself as a third way between the old Gaullist Right and the socialism of François Mitterrand, who he called "a man of the past". Following Giscard's presidency, perhaps the most important development in centrisme prior to Macron's election was the surprisingly strong showing of ex-Minister of National Education François Bayrou in 2007.
Macron is an enigmatic figure in his own right. Most analyses of his personal character center on his arrogant personality and odd developments in his private life at the expense of his convoluted—if distinctly French—political trajectory. In 2002, Macron supported the presidential candidacy of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the famed left-wing nationalist who left the Socialist Party (PS) to start the Republican and Citizen Movement (MRC). Though Macron depicts his support for Chevènement as a vote made in a bout of youthful ignorance, Macron was once intimately involved in the MRC, and began his political career as an aide to party co-founder Georges Sarre during his mayoral tenure in Paris's 11th arrondissement.
In 2006, Macron would join the Socialist Party, which would remain hegemonic on the French Left for another decade. During this period, he would first come into contact with future President François Hollande, who would later task him with leading Bercy. Following a stint as Inspector of Finances, Macron would begin his rapid ascent in the private sector in 2007, securing a lucrative gig as an investment banker at Rothschild and Co. His success in the business world led to conservative then-Prime Minister François Fillon offering him the position of deputy chief of staff, which he would pass on.
Following the triumph of the Socialist Party in the 2012 elections, Macron would reunite with Hollande, joining Élysée Palace in a senior staffing position. In this capacity, Macron would be partially credited with convincing the government to abandon a proposed initiative to regulate the salary of corporate executives. In 2014, he would be elevated to the position of Minister of Economy and Industry. At Bercy, he would re-assert himself as one of the most conservative voices in the government, and would famously describe France's 35-hour workweek policy as one that signaled a "country which no longer wanted to work".
Macron would leave the Socialist Party in 2015, and in 2016 established his own political outfit, En Marche! (EM). The party would be founded with the help of alumni of the now-disgraced Dominique Strauss-Khan (DSK), the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund and two-time Socialist presidential candidate. Macron and the "DSK Boys" helped leverage his deep connections in French media into an almost unprecedented onslaught of positive media coverage during his presidential campaign.
In early 2017, the presidential contest looked like it would end in a runoff between arch-Thatcherite Fillon and far-right nationalist Le Pen, a nightmare scenario for the anyone left-of-centre. By successfully positioning himself as the only viable alternative to a hardline conservative presidency, Macron was able to garner the support of approximately 2/3rds of the French centre-left electorate, securing him a place in the runoff versus Le Pen. Despite fears that France would be the next country to surprisingly thrust the far-right into power, Macron defeated Le Pen by an overwhelming margin.
Far from a reformist social democrat in any meaningful sense, Macron was governing as a rather orthodox right-liberal from the start. When he took office, Macron confused some observers for his choice of Édouard Philippe as Prime Minister. A largely anonymous Juppiste, Philippe had been quietly serving as the conservative Mayor of Le Havre at the time of his appointment. Following the failure of Alain Juppé's candidacy, Philippe asserted his support for Fillon's right-wing campaign, though he reneged his support following Fillon's corruption scandal. To lead the powerful Ministry of the Economy and Finance, fellow right-winger Bruno Le Maire, also a former Fillon supporter, was chosen.
To be clear, individuals with left-of-centre backgrounds were far from absent in the first Philippe Government. Indeed, many individuals who made their careers in the Socialist Party found themselves in the Philippe Government, where they willfully participated in the further erosion of French labor protections and protections for migrants. Longtime Mayor of Lyon Gérard Collomb, one of the earliest members of the Socialist Party to defect in favor of Macron's 2017 presidential campaign, was tapped to lead the crucial Ministry of the Interior. In this capacity, Collomb would pursue a hardline program, helping push through the draconian "SILT" law that expanded state anti-terrorism powers against outcry from civil libertarians.
Other centre-left figures looking to enact positive change found themselves constricted by the government's conservative direction. The appointment of famous environment Nicolas Hulot to lead the Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition was welcomed by observers, who viewed his selection as a sign that Macron would follow through on his ambitious climate goals. A year later, Hulot would unexpectedly resign from his position, citing his frustration with Macron's failure to commit to a meaningful environmentalist program. It is clear that, despite his portrayal as a white knight for the French centre-left in the 2017 campaign cycle, Macron has governed in a conservative direction.
As mentioned previously, Macron's right-wing shift has had a clear effect on the composition of his electorate. Perhaps the best way to identify the transformation of Macron's voter base is to compare the cases of the quintessentially bourgeois Neuilly-sur-Seine and the BoBo 10th arrondissement of Paris. Famed for its affluence, "Neuilly" has long been a center of right-wing politics in France, being the home base of Nicolas Sarkozy and a litany of other conservative political figures. On the other hand, the 10th arrondissement, a historically working-class area that been reinvigorated as a bohemian, having elected a Socialist Party mayor since 1995.
In the 2017 election, Macron's liberal positioning would allow him to win the first round in the 10th arrondissement with 37.71%, giving him a lead of over twelve percentage points ahead his nearest competitor. Conversely, Macron was crushed in the first round in Neuilly, with Fillon's austere right-wing politics proving perfect for the commune: Fillon was able to garner almost 65 percent of the vote, which put him almost forty percentage points ahead of Macron.
Less than two years later, Macron's conservative turn in office caused the LREM to collapse in the 10th arrondissement, with the centre-left Europe Ecology - The Greens (EELV) emerging victorious. Indeed, it's not difficult to imagine that embattled Macronista Benjamin Griveaux, who represents the arrondissement in the National Assembly, will struggle to win reelection in 2022. Conversely, Macron's rightward shift worked to his benefit in wealthy areas like Neuilly that have long lended their support to candidates of the traditional French Right. LREM cleaned up in Neuilly in the 2019 European Parliament election, winning around 48% of the total vote, a result that placed it approximately 23% ahead of its nearest competitor.
The state of the French Left is positively dire. Though French opinion polling is notoriously volatile, data taken throughout the Macron presidency has provided the Left with little hope for advancing to the second round of the 2022 presidential election, let alone win the contest. The low-turnout 2020 municipal elections, which produced a "Green Wave" in cities like Lyon and Marseille and led to the reelection of the Anne Hidalgo in Paris, should not provide a false sense of security or relief for the Left as it looks to 2022. As it stands, petty personal rivalries, the failed legacy of Hollande, and the broader structural problems facing left-wing parties across the continent look to harm the Left's chances of gaining power in 2022.
Though he is well-known for his surprisingly strong performance in 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise, or FI) remains poorly understood in both France and abroad. Mélenchon is certainly not a "communist" as generally portrayed, and in fact his poor relationship with the leadership of the French Communist Party (PCF) has cost the Left dearly: the failure of the FI and the PCF to come to a unity agreement in the 2017 National Assembly elections cost the Left innumerable opportunities at building its parliamentary presence.
Furthermore, it is similarly unwise to view Mélenchon as a left-wing nationalist in the mold of Chevènement, in spite of their obvious aesthetic similarities. Though accusations that Mélenchon has leaned into anti-immigration sentiment are not without grains of truth—Mélenchon is a shrewd political operator with a history of making bigoted statements—perspective is needed on this subject. In a country where politicians have made careers calling for blanket bans on immigration, it's absurd to pretend that Mélenchon, whose 2017 immigration platform endorsed amnesty for undocumented migrants and the expansion of asylum opportunities, converges with the likes of Le Pen on the subject. From his 2012 presidential campaign to his tenure in the National Assembly, where he has opposed Macron's anti-migrant policies, Mélenchon has long criticized the scapegoating of migrants for France's economic woes.
Instead, Mélenchon should best be understood as a Mitterrandist willing to play the role of revolutionary if it suits him. Following an extensive career in the Socialist Party, he would leave the party in 2008 to found the Left Front (Front de Gauche), his first personal outlet. In the 2012 presidential election, Mélenchon first achieved national recognition with the help of his strong oratory skills and signature sense of humor. In the end, the 11% of the vote he received in the first round was the best performance at the time for a candidate running to the left of the Socialist Party candidate since 1981.
Elected to the presidency on a broadly left-wing platform, François Hollande reneged on his campaign promises during his tenure, naturally leading to discontent among the left-wing electorate. In the 2017 Socialist Party presidential primary, widespread disappointment with Hollande's tenure led to left-winger and former Mélenchon ally Benoît Hamon to claim the party's nomination. However, a series of strategic mistakes led to "Petit Benoît" to collapse in polling, with Mélenchon's firebrand candidacy filling the power vacuum on the Left.
Formed for the 2017 election, Mélenchon ran as the candidate of La France Insoumise, an ecosocialist outfit that looked promising in a French Left that would soon not be dominated by the Socialist Party. Mélenchon's 2017 candidacy could best be described as "oddly endearing", a left-wing populist candidacy boosted by the candidate's use of holograms and an associated video game. Mélenchon would end up receiving around 20% of the vote, placing him just behind Fillon and only a few points out of reach from a spot in the runoff.
Unfortunately, the promise of La France Insoumise proved too good to be true. Though some of the most promising elected officials on the French Left remain affiliated with the party, as an organization it predictably became little more than a personal outlet for Mélenchon's ambitions. The 2018 defection of Liêm Hoang-Ngoc, a former Member of the European Parliament and economic advisor to Mélenchon, marked the first of many notable resignations from the party. These were not all unfortunate, mind you: the defection of Georges Kuzmanovic, a former advisor to Mélenchon known for his plethora of reactionary views, was hardly a loss for La France Insoumise.
Nevertheless, it must be stressed that the party has failed to take advantage of the numerous opportunities that briefly presented themselves to it. In 2018, a by-election for Essonne's 1st National Assembly constituency came to fruition following the resignation of former Prime Minister Manuel Valls (Socialist Party). In 2017, Valls had only defeated the candidate of La France Insoumise, Farida Amrani, by less than a percentage point, and Amrani was seen as a probable favorite in the 2018 by-election. In the end, however, she was defeated by a surprisingly comfortable margin, a disappointing result for a party in desperate need of enlarging its parliamentary ranks. Similarly, after the narrowest of defeats in the regularly scheduled 2017 election, the candidate of La France Insoumise managed to narrowly lose ground in the 2018 by-election for French Guiana's 2nd National Assembly constituency.
In the 2019 European Union elections, La France Insoumise performed poorly, receiving an embarrassing 6.3% of the vote that put it just above the scrappy alliance led by the Socialist Party and well behind the EELV. While Mélenchon's prospective bid for Mayor of Marseille in 2020 looked promising, his decision to forgo a candidacy led the EELV to lead the Left in his absence in the city's municipal elections. Nathalie Perrin-Gilbert, the Mayor of Lyon's 1st arrondissement, faltered in her bid for the city's mayoralty despite years of anticipation she could prove a viable contender. As it stands, there's little reason to imagine that La France Insoumise will perform any better in the 2021 regional elections.
More than anything else, Mélenchon's failure to assert himself as de facto "leader of the opposition" to Macron stems from a place of complacency. Mélenchon calculated that Macron's rightward shift and acquired image as a "President of the Rich" would naturally lead the Left—or, more specifically, himself— to be seen as the government's primary opposition force. Under this logical framework, Mélenchon would have no responsibility to make amends with his rivals on the Left to build a coalition capable of national victory.
This calculation fell flat: the 2019 European Parliament elections reasserted that Le Pen and the reactionary far-right were Macron's most notable opposition. In a country famous for its social movements, it was the ideologically incongruous gilet jaunes, not a left-wing movement akin to 2016's Nuit debout, that made the most impact over the past four years. Mélenchon's brief rise in popularity in 2018 was squandered by a series of high-profile police raids related to potential fundraising irregularities by La France Insoumise. As it stands, Mélenchon's polling performance is pitiful, and he would be fortunate to receive a share of the vote comparable to his 2017 result.
As mentioned previously, despite the party's organizational failings, La France Insoumise continues to maintain some of the most promising figures on the French Left in its ranks. Hailing from Macron's hometown of Amiens, former journalist and filmmaker François Ruffin has established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the National Assembly since taking office in 2017. Though he has declined to enter the 2022 presidential contest, it is likely that he will mount a bid for Élysée Palace at some point in the future.
In an uncharacteristic display of political acumen, Mélenchon chose Oxfam France spokeswoman Manon Aubry to lead La France Insoumise's list in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Far from a Mélenchon sycophant, Aubry is an accomplished figure in her own right, and during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a leader in the fight to hold the government accountable for its incompetence. At age 31, Aubry has a bright future ahead of her, and in a post-Mélenchon political landscape may prove to be a solid national candidate for the Left.
As a matter of likelihood, the possibility of a Socialist Party (PS) resurge in 2022 rests upon Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo. Elected to the mayoralty of the nation's capital in 2014, Hidalgo has asserted herself as a leader on the international stage in recent years. English language media has drawn particular attention to her urbanist policies, with the proposed green-friendly transformation of Champs-Élysées receiving particular fanfare abroad. Outside the realm of transit and environmental policy, Hidalgo has notably pushed to reign in AirBnB and other short-term rental operators, and received further attention for being given an obscene penalty for hiring too many women to staff positions.
There's much to celebrate about Hidalgo's tenure, and she could very well prove to be the best option for the Left in 2022. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Hidalgo's tenure has been far more tumultuous than usually portrayed: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hidalgo looked vulnerable to a challenge from the Right or centre in her reelection bid. Recent national polling suggests that Hidalgo's popularity among the French electorate has actually declined, with her push for a strict lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 damaging her favorability ratings.
Aside from Hidalgo, one potential candidate from the Socialist Party with the potential to make an impact in 2022 is Arnaud Montebourg, Macron's predecessor at Bercy. Montebourg has been a staple of the French Left since the early 2000s, when he made a name for himself as an anti-corruption crusader. During the 2006 Socialist Party presidential primary, Montebourg would sign onto Ségolène Royal's campaign, though he would be fired from his position after criticizing Royal's partner François Hollande. Nevertheless, Montebourg would serve as Minister of the Economy and Finance during the first two years of Hollande's presidency, where he spar with right-wingers in the Socialist Party such as Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Though Montebourg is probably a more viable option than most suggested alternatives on the Left, his unsuccessful candidacies in both 2012 and 2017 provide little confidence in his 2022 prospects.
Given the success of the EELV in the 2020 municipal elections, it is only natural that
Yannick Jadot, a Member of the European Parliament who served as the party's 2017 presidential nominee before dropping out of the contest altogether, is receiving attention as a prospective challenger to Macron. In addition to Jadot, Mayor of Grenoble Éric Piolle, who supported Mélenchon in 2017, and former party official Sandrine Rousseau also plan to contest the party's presidential nomination. Regardless of the outcome of the EELV nomination battle, current polling data provides little refuge for the French Left as it looks to oust Macron. As of now, it would take a combination of Mélenchon's, Royal's, and Jadot's polling numbers for the Left to even stand a chance at making it to the runoff.
The Prodigal Daughter
It would be unwise to dismiss the danger posed by Marine Le Pen. A Le Pen presidency, however improbable, would prove an unmitigated disaster for France and the world, even if it was not accompanied by a National Rally (RN) majority in the National Assembly. Recent polling that suggests a resurgence for Le Pen, a staunch authoritarian who would prove dangerous for France's immigrant communities in office, should certainly be met with alarm.
It must be stressed, nevertheless, that the prospect of Le Pen in Élysée Palace remains an unlikely one. Though it has largely been forgotten in the aftermath of her resounding defeat in 2017, it should be noted that Le Pen was leading President François Hollande in opinion polling for the 2017 presidential election as early as 2014. Indeed, polling taken throughout 2016 also found Le Pen leading the embattled President, and some surveys of a potential runoff between her and one of Manuel Valls (PS) or François Fillon (LR) found her polling respectably. While Le Pen's current polling numbers versus Macron spell more danger for the incumbent than surveys of a head-to-head matchup between the two in 2017 found, it is still important to consider Le Pen's history of underperforming expectations.
Above all else, the National Rally (née "National Front", or FN) remains a weak outlet for the reactionary, anti-immigrant Right. The "de-demonization" campaign undertaken by Le Pen after succeeding her extremist father in party leadership 2011 has not reaped its anticipated dividends, and the party has failed to take advantage of most of the opportunities it has been presented with. Taking place just a month after the devastating 2015 Paris attacks, a historic tragedy that was accompanied by a rise in xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiment, the National Front fumbled the 2015 regional elections. Despite widespread expectations that the party would take power in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie (later renamed "Hauts-de-France"), the National Front failed to win a single regional contest.
While the party's performance in the 2019 European Parliament election was portrayed as a victory for Le Pen, the National Rally actually managed to lose a seat and receive a smaller share of the vote than it did four years prior. In the 2020 municipal elections, Le Pen was humiliated once again, with the National Rally failing to make major inroads in municipal politics. Over the past four years, the traditional French centre-right has faced an existential crisis, struggling to assert its identity in the face of pressure from both the increasingly conservative LREM and the far-right RN. While Macron has been able to integrate liberal elements of Les Républicains into his own coalition, Le Pen has been less successful at forging alliances with reactionaries in the party.
Nicolas Sarkozy's victory in 2007 shows that the French electorate is more than willing to vote for candidates who employ racism and xenophobia for their own ends. The issue for Le Pen is that, despite spending a decade working to normalize the French far-right in the public eye, significant portions of the conservative electorate still consider voting for her party a non-starter. The far-right will continue to struggle as long as the Le Pen family remains its standard bearers, and despite favorable trends in recent polling, Marine Le Pen should not be viewed as the frontrunner for the 2022 presidential election. While France may hate its incumbents, the combination of a fractured Left and a weaker-than-depicted far-right means that Macron is likely to be reelected.
Aidan Smith (@Aidan_Smx) is the founder and political director of Labyrinth. He has contributed to an array of publications, including The Nation, The Appeal, Current Affairs, and Salon.
Artwork by Aidan Smith. Design by Tia Wagh. (@Tia_Wagh)