Could France elect a leader from the far right?

Newspaper Front Pages After First Round Of French Presidential Elections
Much is at stake in this rematch of the 2017 French presidential election. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

The final round of the French presidential election on April 24 features a rematch of the 2017 runoff between Emmanuel Macron, the current officeholder, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right challenger of the National Front.

The dynamics have changed since their last campaign, when Macron earned 66% of the vote to Le Pen’s 33%. Despite Le Pen’s political relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin—a photo of the pair is featured on Le Pen’s website—as well as her anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic positions, modelers, including those from The Economist, forecast that the election will be “tight.”

Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor of political science.
Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor of political science. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I would not bet a lot of money on Macron, but I still think that’s the safer bet,” says Colin Brown, a Northeastern assistant teaching professor of political science who researches the impact of first- and second-generation migrants on elections, particularly in Western Europe. 

Macron is backed by the main challengers who were defeated in the first round on Sunday—with the exception of Éric Zemmour, who ran to the right of Le Pen. In the second and final round, he will go head-to-head against Le Pen.

Le Pen has focused her campaign on inflation and other pocketbook issues. Anticipation of low turnout is feeding concerns that Macron no longer has a passionate following of support.

A Le Pen victory “might not be seen as a bolt out of the blue, in the way that Brexit or the [2016 Donald] Trump election was,” Brown says. “But it would still be unexpected.”

Brown spoke with News@Northeastern about the diminishing role of major parties, disaffection for Macron, and Le Pen’s attempts to normalize her candidacy. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the focus of the election?

The issues that are driving the changes that matter in the margins of the parties that are going to govern seem to be much more on economic issues. 

It really seems to be about pensions and inflation and things like that. And that is coupled with a general decline in trusted institutions.

What has changed since the 2017 election?

This ties into some of the bigger stories in Europe. There’s the death of the main parties. The two-party system in France has certainly declined over the last few decades, and that’s been going on in a lot of European countries. In Germany, the two center parties are getting 60% of the vote, where they used to get 90%; in the Netherlands, the three traditional center parties are getting 35% of the vote, where they used to get 50%. 

That’s been part of a general move towards smaller parties across most European countries—most of those parties being a little further out [on the edges of the political spectrum] but also often having a more specific issue or key idea. Plus there is the rise of protest parties, which in some cases are like the proverbial dog that finally catches the car and doesn’t know necessarily how to deal with actually governing.

Macron has made a number of unpopular decisions; on Tuesday he tried to shore up support from the left by backing away from his proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. What has changed for him since his election five years ago?[

It’s a disconnect between expectations and reality. He campaigned [in 2017] to be a change in style—not truly populist, but elements of populism. He was very clear that he was center and technocratic, and there’s an inherent tension in that. He can’t be strongly opposed to migration, but he’s also adopted some of the language of the far right and is offering a more moderate solution.

What has been the role of immigration in this election?

Immigration is the issue that brings the National Front to prominence. It’s the thing that helps them gain their foothold, and it certainly is a key marker of support. 

But in the French presidential campaign, there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on migration. And part of that might be seen as a way to expand Le Pen’s reach outside of her traditional voters. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an underlying cause [of her prominence].

Is Le Pen damaged by her association with Putin?

I don’t think it’s a great look for the average person. I also don’t think that it’s in the front of people’s minds. 

It matters for some people, and it’s one of the things that might keep her from getting a majority. Is it enough to cause people who don’t like either candidate to come out and vote for Macron? In the past, issues like [Putin] have been. And I think they probably will be again. But there’s not certainty.

In the first round of the election, what was the effect of Zemmour, the candidate who is farther right than Le Pen?

It helps bring her party into normal discourse. I wouldn’t say that [the National Front] is sanitized for everyone in the country. But in the politics of percentages, there are some people who may say, “She’s not that far right. She’s not that crazy.”

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