French election: extremism surge leaves Macron as a one-man political mainstream

Disillusioned voters desert centre ground amid concerns over cost-of-living crisis

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A powerful surge of support for extremist candidates in France’s election has left President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist party isolated as the country’s only mainstream political force.

Early soundings on second-round voting intentions suggested Mr Macron would secure a second five-year term in the decider on April 24 but by a potentially vulnerable margin of 54-46, down from his thumping 66 per cent lead five years ago.

After decades of dominance, until Mr Macron cruised to victory in 2017, the traditional parties of left and right have been reduced to minor also-ran status as more than 20 million people voted for contenders from the extremes.

The first round of voting on Sunday quickly turned into a three-horse race with the president leading on 27.6 per cent, a little more than four points ahead of Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist, anti-immigration National Rally.

Close behind her was Jean-Luc Melenchon from the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who at one point rose in estimates to within 0.8 per cent of overtaking her.

With all but a handful of overseas votes counted, Mr Melenchon looked set to finish on fractionally less than 22 per cent, 1.46 per cent lower than Ms Le Pen’s tally.

France goes to polls to choose new president

France goes to polls to choose new president

Another extreme right-winger, Eric Zemmour, whose impact flagged after an explosive entry into the campaign, won only 7 per cent. But taking account of minor candidates, broadly anti-system contenders of far left and right took nearly 56 per cent of the poll.

In large numbers, voters ignored the stigma of extremism and registered deep discontent at issues ranging from the cost-of-living crisis – central to the campaign amid soaring rises in the price of fuel, energy and food – to immigration and security.

Valerie Pecresse and Anne Hidalgo, heavyweight local government leaders and respectively the French equivalents of British Conservative and Labour challengers, suffered humiliation.

Ms Pecresse, the Gaullist centre-right president of the Paris regional council, polled 4.8 per cent, while Ms Hidalgo, socialist mayor of Paris, managed only 1.7 per cent.

One French analyst described the Parti Socialiste, for whom Francois Hollande was head of state until as recently as 2017, as “clinically dead”. Another, Jacques Reland, a fellow at the London-based think tank Global Policy Institute, had earlier told The National that Ms Pecresse’s campaign was a ”car crash”.

Sizeable no-show at the polls

The outcome was influenced by large-scale abstention, with slightly more than a quarter of the 48.8 million eligible voters choosing to support no one.

Among them, one former Macron supporter, a retired car mechanic, told France Info radio he felt he was being asked to choose between “kids squabbling in the playground, accusing one another of stealing their ideas”; a young Muslim market trader from the Parisian banlieue suspected his vote would change nothing.

The redistribution of votes cast for the 10 eliminated candidates and appeals to non-voters to turn out for the run-off will now be crucial to the final outcome.

Most if not all of Mr Zemmour’s supporters are expected to heed his call to switch allegiance to Ms Le Pen despite fierce clashes between the two during the campaign.

She once dismissed his Reconquest movement as a mixture of “traditionalist Catholics, pagans and a few Nazis”. He, in turn, portrayed himself as the only true candidate of the right and lured high-profile defectors from her camp, including her niece Marion Marechal.

Mr Macron will inevitably pick up extra votes following the appeals of Ms Pecresse, Ms Hidalgo and minor candidates to support him. But their combined clout is weak, handing a decisive role to Mr Melenchon’s seven million supporters.

In a passionate election night speech, Mr Melenchon spoke firmly against voting for Ms Le Pen but stopped well short of suggesting they should back Mr Macron.

The fear for the president is that many working-class, lower-income Melenchon voters see themselves as similar to the “forgotten little people” to whom Ms Le Pen appeals.

In a series of tweets analysing the first-round results, Philippe Marliere, professor of French and European politics at University College London, outlined the threat to Mr Macron.

“If Macron does not engage left-wing voters in between the two rounds … he will lose to Le Pen. This time around, a lot of left-wing voters who are totally exasperated by Macron will abstain. A minority will even vote for Le Pen.”

As Ms Le Pen’s champions insist, and even Mr Macron’s key associates acknowledge, the president’s future is far from secure as campaigning begins for the decider.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 1:51 PM