How will France vote in the first round?
The polls over time
In 2016, the former government minister Emmanuel Macron set up his political party En Marche!. A year later, he won the French presidency, upending the establishment parties and beating the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen 66 per cent to 34 per cent. His victory stunned most, and heralded, for some, the first signs of a popular fightback against the West’s seemingly unbeatable radical right. This year, on 10 April, France will return to the polls to deliver its verdict on his presidency. Will he win again?
The New Statesman’s poll tracker puts Macron solidly ahead on the first round, but that’s not enough. France votes differently to much of the English-speaking world. In France, voters usually go to the polls twice. If, in the first round of voting, no candidate receives an absolute majority of all valid votes cast, then the country votes again, but the choices on the ballot paper are between the top two best-performing candidates.
Whoever comes second will have a hard job unseating Macron, but not an impossible one. Right now, Macron would win the presidency with between 54 and 60 per cent of the vote, depending on who comes second. His present leads are comfortable, but built on low enthusiasm from the less affluent, suggesting that opportunities remain for opponents to excite the French populace and upend the system once more.
Since ascending to the top job, polls have put Macron’s winning margin over his opponents at a much lower level than what he achieved in 2017. Surveys point to a nation intensely disaffected with politics, a disproportionate number of whom are women and live with below-average incomes. Voter uncertainty is high, not least among those who would count themselves as left wing.
While as many as 20 to 25 per cent of French voters are supporting a centre-left to left-wing candidate, the chances of a left candidate finishing in the top two is vanishingly small. There are so many of them, with only one garnering more than 10 per cent in the polls – the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Save a significant change of events, the French left is unlikely to feature prominently in this election. In 2017, however, it turned out in large numbers to help Macron in the fight against Le Pen. Whether that happens again is yet to be seen, but signs suggest that while disaffection has indeed risen – and mass absenteeism from the left is all but guaranteed – there will be enough of those of a softer left persuasion willing to help the president in a second round.
[See also: Can anything save the French left?]
On every occasion that France has gone to the polls in recent times, more than one in 20 of its citizenry has been out of work. In 2020, the annual average rate of unemployment was at 8 per cent. In the far north and far south it’s been stubbornly higher than that, and has been so in each election.
Generally speaking, radical rightists have done better in areas of high unemployment – Le Pen’s National Rally, for instance, won its first local authority, Hénin-Beaumont, in the Pas-de-Calais department, a locale of consistently above average numbers of out-of-work residents.
One saving grace for Macron’s re-election prospects is that unemployment today is lower than it was at the point of the 2017 election. Back then, the rate of joblessness was 9 per cent – a figure that likely worked in his favour as voters abandoned the traditional parties. As of December 2021, however, it is down to 7.4 per cent.