Will France's anti-Marine Le Pen “republican front” hold?

The balance of probabilities is still that the far-right leader will lose next year – but by the slimmest margin a Le Pen ever has.

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Marie, a 27-year-old from Bordeaux, voted for the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon in the first round of the 2017 French presidential election. Hamon, who came a dismal fifth, didn’t qualify for the second round, which pitted centrist insurgent Emmanuel Macron against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.  

“If Le Pen had been elected, I would have had to be able to explain to my kids that I did everything I could to stop her,” Marie says. Despite not being enamoured with Macron, she was one of the millions of left-wingers who voted for him to keep Le Pen out: part of the so-called “republican front”, in which voters of mainstream parties are urged to vote against the far-right in the second round.  

Macron won the second round of the 2017 election by a margin of 66 per cent to Le Pen’s 34 per cent, the second largest share of the vote received by any candidate under France’s current electoral system, behind only the 2002 election. That year, Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie squeaked in to the second round and was defeated by the centre-right candidate, Jacques Chirac, by 82 per cent to 18 per cent.  

[See also: “It’s hardly a diplomatic secret that Boris Johnson is a liar”: Sylvie Bermann on life as an envoy]

Four years later, Marie feels disappointed. Although she would probably vote the same way in the event of another Macron-Le Pen run-off, she says that Macron’s policies, which she views as too right-wing, were pursued in defiance of left-wing voters like her, who voted against Le Pen rather than for the president. “If you are elected under such circumstances, you need to be careful in how you govern.”

50 per cent of Mélenchon supporters regret backing Macron in the second round
"You have indicated that you voted for Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the 2017 Presidential Election Thinking about your choice, which of the following statements comes closest to your view?"

Exclusive new polling conducted by Redfield & Wilton for the New Statesman shows signs that the “republican front” may be fraying – a problem especially acute among voters on the left. Thirty-seven per cent of people who voted for Macron in the run-off say they would now change the way they voted in the second round, including half of left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters.

The phenomenon should not be exaggerated. Mid-term polls tend to show heightened levels of discontent when compared to the national mood in the run-up to polling day. And given that Macron’s term has not been accompanied with a slew of left-pleasing policies or rhetoric, it is almost inevitable that his left-leaning voters will be the most disillusioned.  

Nonetheless, the findings show that some parts of the left sections of Macron’s electoral coalition may be losing faith in him, as a story in the left-leaning daily Libération in February highlighted. The newspaper received hundreds of letters from left-wing voters who said they would not vote for Macron against Le Pen again, in protest at his presidency. 

Macron faces additional problems. According to the New Statesman polling, his base is disenchanted. A third (33 per cent) of his 2017 vote regard the government to be incompetent. More than four in ten (42 per cent) of his own voters unhappy with France’s vaccination campaign blame his government for the handling of the roll-out, near double that of those who blame the suppliers.  

[See also: Exclusive: French people feel unsafe taking AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines]

Close to half (47 per cent) think Macron to be no better or worse than former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who banned the burka in some public spaces. Forty-four per cent think he is no better or worse than his historically unpopular predecessor, the socialist François Hollande, whose approval ratings at times dipped as low as less than 6 per cent.  

Macron’s vote when up against Le Pen has regressed into something similar to that of a centre-right candidate. Polls in the run-up to 2017 had Le Pen near consistently ahead on the first round, with centre-right candidate François Fillon the presumptive run-off opponent. In polls pitting Fillon against Le Pen, Fillion won, but only by 60 per cent to 40 per cent, or even 55 to 45 per cent. The New Statesman poll shows a hypothetical Macron-Le Pen second round being won by Macron by the same margin, 55 per cent.

It is also worth noting that most polls show Macron as one of the strongest candidates to defeat Le Pen, even if his margin of victory would be narrower than in 2017. 

Most voters with an opinion regard Macron as right wing
"How would you describe Emmanuel Macron’s political ideology as President?"

This is in part a function of Mélenchon and Hamon’s voters viewing Macron as right-wing, rather than the centrist he pitched himself as during the 2017 campaign. Over half of them view him as right-wing, compared to just 28 per cent of his own voters and 30 per cent of voters as a whole. Only a fifth (21 per cent) of voters characterise him as centrist.  

Macron does still have several factors playing in his favour. Fifty-eight per cent of his own vote find him to be likeable, as do one in four of those who didn’t vote in 2017. In isolation, this is relatively poor, but it gives him an advantage relative to Le Pen, much as it did in 2017, when some voters were less concerned about policy issues than about the character traits of the two candidates. There is still a lingering, though weakening, taboo against voting for Le Pen. And perceptions of Macron’s competence and a “presidential” image will also benefit him. 

However, the figures indicate that voters are beginning to reject the “republican front” some feel forces them to back candidates and policies they do not support. The balance of probabilities is still that Marine Le Pen will lose next year – but by the slimmest margin a Le Pen ever has.

[See also: New polling: voters blame French government for slow vaccination campaign]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

He co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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