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Daniel Cohen explains why the French president's position remains strong ahead of April's election

Investing / opinion
Daniel Cohen explains why the French president's position remains strong ahead of April's election
Emmanuel Macron, President of France
Emmanuel Macron, President of France

Although the French presidential election is just two months away, it still feels as though the campaign hasn’t really begun. On both the right and the left, the candidates are busy marking their territories off from close rivals. Each seems to be more focused on settling internal accounts than on confronting the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron.

On the left, seven candidates are playing a zero-sum game for no more than 25% of the electorate. On the right, a similar contest is playing out between the center and the extreme, with three candidates ultimately vying for about 45% of the electorate. Opinion polls currently show Macron winning the first round with 25% and being re-elected in the second round, regardless of whether he faces Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally or Valérie Pécresse of the traditional center-right party, Les Républicains.

Macron, meanwhile, seems content to watch his challengers fight among themselves. He has been postponing the official announcement of his candidacy until the last minute and has made clear that he will not participate in the first-round debates.

Macron’s remarkable hold on French political life is anomalous. In most large democracies, politics has become increasingly polarized, with the left and the right locked in a state of mutual hatred. How has Macron managed to hold a moderate centrist line? Part of the answer lies in the exceptional circumstances in which he was elected in 2017.

In that election, the left’s main candidate, incumbent President François Hollande, was so unpopular – his approval rating was just 4% a year before his term ended – that he ultimately opted not to run. At the same time, the candidate of the mainstream right, François Fillon, became caught up in a financial scandal and was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges.

Beyond these unique circumstances, Macron also benefited from the growing radicalization of both the left and the right, which enabled him to consolidate control over a large bloc of voters who were worried about extremism on both sides. His campaign followed a textbook “median-voter” strategy, attracting moderate left-wing voters (many of whom remain faithful to him) as well as a significant share of the moderate right.

Now, a new analysis of French electoral trends, based on a sample of nearly 10,000 voters collected by Ipsos, highlights the trajectory of left-wing voters who had previously supported Hollande. In 2012, this cohort represented 28.5% of the electorate. In 2017, 46% of former Hollande voters cast ballots for Macron. Now, this segment of the electorate is divided into thirds: 36% continue to support Macron, 34% are preparing to vote again for a left-wing candidate, and 29% intend to abstain from voting.

The share of voters committed to the left thus has fallen by some 18 percentage points. Not only has the moderate left defected; a growing share of working-class voters has decided to abstain or support the far right. Since the left is clearly in need of an ideological reboot, its candidates in this election are largely focused on preparing the ground for after Macron leaves the scene.

But Macronism has also had a dramatic impact on the right. The same poll shows that support for Pécresse is lower than it was for Fillon around this time in 2017, reflecting the migration of right-leaning voters elsewhere. Around 29% of Fillon voters are preparing to vote for Macron, and 16% are supporting Éric Zemmour, the new far-right rival to Le Pen. Pécresse thus commands only 48% of Fillon’s electorate. In her effort to claim both the center right and the radical right, Pécresse lately seems more interested in winning over the latter, going so far as to highlight the racist “great replacement” theory, developed by the far-right thinker Renaud Camus. As with the left, the traditional right is struggling to assert itself against extremists.

The problem for both the left and the right is that this election comes at a time voters are primarily concerned with kitchen-table issues, rather than ideological purity tests. The Ipsos poll shows that the two worries most frequently cited by voters are declining purchasing power (44%) and COVID-19 (35%).

These issues – which are mainly about vaccination and the price of fuel – are hardly conducive to ideological grandstanding. The right can’t accuse Macron of fiscal profligacy, because voters want more deficit- and debt-financed support. But nor can the left capitalize on the situation. French voters will protest vehemently against rising energy prices, making it much more difficult to push for new taxes on fossil fuels (even if there are also measures to help reinforce a new consumption model).

Then again, French politics never remains dormant for long, as Charles de Gaulle and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing both discovered in their own times. In 1965, de Gaulle assumed that his election was assured; yet against all odds, he had to run a second-round campaign against François Mitterrand, who had been endorsed by the left, including the Communist Party. Similarly, Giscard d’Estaing, the center-right incumbent, was certain that he would win re-election in 1981. But owing to the fallout of the second global oil shock, he lost to Mitterrand.

This year’s campaign, too, might still surprise us. After all, the main protagonist has not yet entered the scene.

Daniel Cohen, President of the Board of Directors of the Paris School of Economics, is the author, most recently, of The Inglorious Years: The Collapse of the Industrial Order and the Rise of Digital Society (Princeton University Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022, and published here with permission.

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France is a bell-weather western nation & has been for me for 50 years or so. What happens in France usually catches up with the rest of the west at some point. Why is this? I'm not 100% sure but they were the worlds first liberals over 200 years ago & have been central to everything western ever since. In this sense I hope we follow France to the centre of politics in our own nation very soon, as the chardonay socialists in Wellington have pretty much stuffed everything this nation ever stood for. And they haven't finished yet. France is an amazing country. History, business, people, culture, beautiful topography, fabulous foods & flavours, entertainments, sports, it has got it all. And even though they can 'sometimes' be off-hand & arrogant, I still love them & would give my eye teeth to be at the Rugby World Cup next year. April may yet turn out to be a key moment for Macron & co. Nothing is a given. To anyone. The French like to play their cards close to their chest. And good on them. They only get to have a vote once every 4 years, so they've got to make it count. And so do we.


With arguably by far, the most beautiful city in the world. Yet the other French people have been known to say,  that Paris is the worst country in Europe.


Macron, Trudeau, and Ardern.  The leftist darlings of politics.  They preach tolerance and acceptance but dehumanise and vilify any and all dissenting voices.  I think they’re collectively becoming the laughing stock of the political world by alienating their populations over their self-righteous, ineptitude, and authoritarianism in regard to handling covid.