BERLIN – Incumbent leaders often benefit politically at times of domestic or international crisis. They can be boosted by a rally-around-the-flag effect, as their ratings surge in response to unexpected and difficult challenges, such as Russia’s war on Ukraine or the Covid-19 pandemic.
Incumbents also benefit because they are the ones taking decisions in response to crises. News coverage, in which they are framed as leaders rather than politicians, examines in depth the choices they are making. If their political opponents feature at all, it is fleetingly. Moreover, opposition figures face a difficult balancing act as the attention paid to day-to-day politics wanes. They must decide whether they prefer being accused of undermining national unity by opposing the current leadership, or losing their distinctiveness by supporting the government.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is running for re-election in national elections due in just two weeks’ time, is very much benefiting from incumbency as Moscow has brought war to Europe once again. An address to the French parliament by Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, typified the political benefits that crisis can offer to current leaders. “We are grateful to President Macron, who has shown true leadership,” Zelensky said in his widely publicised speech on 23 March.
[See also: Macron bids to win by positioning himself as Europe’s elder statesman]
Macron was already polling well ahead of his competitors before the war. Even so, the share of voters saying they will choose him in the first round of voting on 10 April leapt from 25 per cent to 30 per cent after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, according to the New Statesman’s poll tracker. Without a drastic change in the final days of campaigning, there is little doubt that he will qualify for the run-off round of voting. The only real question is who will face him.
How will France vote in the first round?
The polls over time
Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader whom Macron defeated in the 2017 run-off, currently seems best placed. She appears to have successfully seen off two challengers on the right, the centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse and the insurgent polemicist Éric Zemmour.
For a time, pundits wondered whether Le Pen’s long-running strategy of moderating her positions on issues such as immigration and abortion in order to frame her party as an acceptable part of the political spectrum would open her up to a challenge from the right. That challenge appeared during this election in the form of Zemmour, who openly reasons in racial terms and supports some of the policies that Le Pen dropped from her party’s platform, such as the “re-immigration” – a euphemism for expulsion – of naturalised French citizens.
From as high as second, however, Zemmour has dropped in the polls. On current numbers, he is tied for third behind Le Pen. If the doyenne of the far right manages to fend off Zemmour and qualify for the second round again, her allies within the party will argue that the result vindicates their long-running strategy of dédiabolisation (de-demonisation).
How will France vote in the second round?
But could someone else pip Le Pen to the second round? One figure who has been slowly gaining support in opinion polls is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran left-winger. Some polls now show the France Unbowed candidate just 4 per cent behind Le Pen. As in 2017, when Mélenchon surged in the weeks before the vote, he appears to be benefiting from a consolidation effect, as voters for other left-wing parties tactically lend him their vote as the candidate with the best chance of making it to the run-off round.
Figure such as Ségolène Royale, who was the Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate in the 2007 election, have argued for left-wing voters to cast their vote tactically for Mélenchon. If enough voters for figures such as the PS’s Anne Hidalgo and the communist Fabien Roussel heed the calls of people such as her, Mélenchon’s strategists hope that he will just be able to squeak through to the second round.
Pécresse, for her part, has sunk after an initial surge in enthusiasm when she won the nomination of her party, Les Républicains. Having failed to impress with an insipid campaign, she is roughly tied for third with Mélenchon and Zemmour.
Though the polls overwhelmingly favour Macron, who would win every second-round matchup comfortably, he could still falter. An unfolding cost-of-living crisis, involving soaring energy and food costs, might yet dent the president. Pledges to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and to toughen requirements to receive unemployment benefits will alienate voters on the centre left who may have been considering him.
Still, with the election due in less than three weeks’ time, the full impact of the cost-of-living crisis may still not be felt by the time of the vote, though it will likely colour the beginning of the winner’s term and the campaign for the important but oft-overlooked parliamentary elections, which will be held in June.