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Five takeaways from the first round of the French presidential election

Left-wing voters who backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon will be critical to the final result.

By Ido Vock

PARIS – After the first round of the the French presidential election yesterday (10 April), the scores on the door are:

Emmanuel Macron (liberal): 27.8 per cent
Marine Le Pen (far-right): 23.2 per cent
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far-left): 22 per cent
Éric Zemmour (far-right): 7 per cent
Valérie Pécresse (centre-right): 4.8 per cent
Anne Hidalgo (centre-left): 1.8 per cent.

The second round of voting for the president of France in two weeks will, then, be a rerun of the 2017 election, pitching Macron, the incumbent, against Le Pen, the far-right leader. The left-winger Mélenchon came within 1.5 per cent of qualifying but, like last time, failed.

Here are a few snap takeaways from the result.

The traditional left-right division in French politics is gone. The candidates of the historical parties of power have been obliterated. Pécresse’s Les Républicains and Hidalgo’s Parti Socialiste polled 6.6 per cent between them. Instead, it makes more sense to think of the French electorate as split in three ways: between liberal internationalists, represented by Macron; Le Pen and Zemmour’s far-right nationalists; and Mélenchon’s left-wing radicals. These three factions together polled about 80 per cent of the vote.

This is the far right’s best ever result in a presidential election. A full third of voters went for Le Pen, Zemmour or Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, another nationalist candidate. Win or not, Le Pen is all but certain to lead the far right to its best second-round result in history in two weeks. Yet paradoxically, she may well distance herself from Zemmour, who has endorsed her, over the next two weeks. Her detoxified image relies, in part, on opposition to his more extreme politics. She may well refuse to share a stage with him in order not to be tarnished by his extremism, which would damage the perception of moderation she has worked hard to generate.

Left-wing voters will be critical to the result of the second round. Le Pen’s path to victory depends on enough voters for Mélenchon, especially, staying at home, if not actively backing her. If she wins, it will be because she does not scare voters on the left as she did in 2017. Macron’s victory speech last night, which I attended, was an attempt to regain some of the ground he has lost to Le Pen among the left-wing electorate over his term. He said he was ready to “invent something new to unify different politics for a common purpose”, an apparent overture to Mélenchon voters. Quite what form this would take wasn’t clear – it is questionable how many left-wingers will be able to countenance any kind of formal alliance with the president, whom they loathe.

The left, if it wasn’t so split, could have made the second round. Mélenchon came within 1.2 points of qualifying for the second round – or, put differently, about half of voters for Fabien Roussel, the first communist candidate for president in 15 years. If he had convinced just a handful more left-wingers to back him tactically, he would have made it. Many in his party will be asking if a less divisive candidate, with less polarising views on Vladimir Putin and Nato, could have managed that feat.

Macron could have a difficult inter-round campaign. Le Pen’s performance in 2017 was so dismal – with a terrible debate especially remembered as having sunk her chances of election – that she can likely only over-perform on expectations. As the cost-of-living crisis, on which Le Pen has campaigned strongly and effectively, continues to bite, Macron will need to show that he can be trusted to tackle the issue. “The only project for the cost of living is ours,” he said in his speech. Whether left-wing voters believe him is another question.

[See also: Will left-wing voter apathy in France hand Marine Le Pen electoral victory?]

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