France’s Presidential Election


Credit: Anna Lombardi

Paul Siebert


In 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France at the age of 39, making him the new face of European politics. Since then, a lot has happened; France and the whole world have gone through several crises that severely tested Macron’s ability to govern. Now, the French are going to the booths again and everyone is asking themselves whether they will re-elect their current president or take their country into a new direction. This article will discuss how Macron’s first presidency went, who is running against him this year, and what the results could look like.

How does the French election system work?

How do the French elect their president? Well, every French citizen older than 18 years old can vote for a candidate who has been nominated by at least 500 representatives, including mayors and deputies. The votes are directly attributed to the candidates, not their parties. 

There are two separate elections that make up the presidential election in France; the first one will be held on the 10th of April this year and if no candidate wins over 50% of the votes, a second round between the two candidates with the most votes will be held on the 24th of April. (For French citizens in the Americas, the votes will each be held a day earlier) Technically, a second round is not necessary in French elections but it is rare that a candidate accumulates over 50% of the votes in the first round. So, assuming that a second round will be needed this year, France’s future president will be the person who wins the absolute majority in that second vote. Whoever that person may be, they will officially be announced president by the Constitutional Council 10 days after the announcement of the results. The five-year term can only be renewed once in France, a difference from most of its neighboring countries where candidates can become president as often as they want. Finally, a fun fact: beginning two weeks before the vote, no candidate is allowed to have more airtime on TV and radio than another, so a candidate who might not even get 1% of the votes needs to be talked about and shown just as much as Emmanuel Macron, the current president.


Who are this year’s candidates?

The best known candidate is Emmanuel Macron, France’s current president. He was first elected in 2017, at the age of 39. He was a complete newcomer in the presidential race and he ran for his own party called “La République En Marche!,” (The Republic on the Move / Republic forward) which he had founded just a year before he won the election. Prior to his run for presidency, he was an investment banker and economy minister under Socialist president François Hollande. He does not want to be labeled as left or right and, while he and his party are socially liberal, he, as a centrist, has moved with the center ground of French politics as it shifted further right.  During his last presidency, he experienced some ups and downs. People said he was out of touch because he didn’t really react to widespread protests and he lost a lot of support because he was relatively strict when it came to Covid-19 restrictions. But in the last few months, France’s strong recovery from the pandemic and Macron’s professional handling of the war in Ukraine has won him back supporters and he is back to being the favorite in the upcoming election. The only thing that still bothers many French citizens at the moment is that Macron seems to be avoiding TV discussions. Public law professor Guillaume Drago wrote in Le Figaro that Macron is disregarding the democratic system and its processes: “The election of the president is the focus of our political life and determines our common future. It is therefore fundamental that candidates – all candidates – publicly debate the future they propose for the country.” As goals for the next five years, Macron announced that he would like to focus his efforts on liberalizing the economy and greater spending on social benefits.

Macron’s fiercest competitor is Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen who founded the Front national, the political party that Marine Le Pen is now running for. In the 11 years that Le Pen has been running the party, she has renamed the party to Rassemblement National (National Rally) and tried to “detoxify” the party’s racist image, which has lost her votes to her far-right rival Éric Zemmour. While that might make it seem like she is leaning more towards the center, she is still too far right for centrist voters. Even though she has been losing votes on both sides of the spectrum, she is still likely to face Macron in the second round. And if she does, voters of other center-right and far-right candidates will likely vote for her because she, like them, is a Eurosceptic and wants to create a tough line on immigration. This is Le Pen’s third run for presidency. 

Valérie Pécresse won the center-right Les Républicains’ (Republicans) nomination against Xavier Bertrand in December. She is quite similar to Macron in many aspects; for example, she graduated from the same elite government school that he did and she is a similar kind of efficient and capable technocrat. Her policies are economically liberal and culturally conservative while Macron’s are more the other way around. Overall, she is slightly more conservative than him; in particular, she is, though her party normally addresses center-right voters, trying to reach out to nationalist voters by promising to end automatic birthright citizenship in France. She currently presides over the region around Paris, Île-de-France, and she has described herself as two-thirds Angela Merkel and one-third Margaret Thatcher. Like Le Pen, Pécresse also promises to take a hard line on immigration but, on top of that, she promises to slash public spending and fight sexual harassment. Apparently, she is trying to reach the second round with the help of far-right voters without alienating center-right voters. And it would have nearly worked; this January, she was second in the race for the presidency, even topping Le Pen. But since then, she has lost supporters to Macron because she has moved too close to the far- right wing for many French voters. If she could win over conservatives who are flirting with far-right parties and keep her centrist voters at the same time, she would have a chance at reaching the second round but that does not look likely at the moment. 

Another contender for the far-right vote is Éric Zemmour. He is a television polemicist who has made his anti-immigration views very clear and has been convicted of hate speech in the past. He founded his own party called Reconquête (Reconquest) in 2021 and rose to second in the polls last fall. He has gained much of his success by announcing that he is running to “save France” from the perils of mass immigration and Islam and by calling for “Immigration Zero.” Since then, he has been continuously losing support due to a “lack of presidential credibility”  and he is now polling at 5 percentage points behind Le Pen. 

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a left-wing veteran who founded the party France Insoumise (France Unbowed) after he left the Socialist Party. He is currently 70 years old and running for president for the third time. While he was already the oldest candidate during the 2017 election, he was quite popular with the younger generation in France. He is the only left-wing candidate with any chance of advancing to the second round (if Macron is counted as a centrist). If Jean-Luc Mélenchon was to become president, he would try to lower the retirement age, legalize cannabis, restore the wealth tax, welcome migrants, and pull France out of NATO. His chances for the presidency are relatively low because of the French left’s inability to unite behind one candidate. However, Mélenchon has been winning percentage points in the polls the last few weeks and he is now sitting in third, ahead of Zemmour and Pécresse by one percent, but still 4% behind Le Pen. 

The only other important candidates are Yannick Jadot, the Green candidate who is currently expected to win 5%, Fabien Roussel, the candidate for the French Communist party who is polling at 3%, and Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist candidate who is only expected to collect 2% of the votes at the moment. That is surprising because the president who served before Macron was a member of Hidalgo’s party. Since then, the Socialists have lost a lot of their supporters to other left-wing candidates and Macron. 


Macron’s first presidency

During Macron’s first presidency, France has become more assertively European, entrepreneurial, business friendly, greener, and in some ways more open. But not all was good: France has also become more polarized in the last five years. Society frets over not only its detached elite but also its national identity, the impact of immigration, and the place of Islam in France. 

First, let’s talk about the economy during Macron’s first presidency. As already mentioned above, Macron served as the economy minister under François Hollande, which, of course, should make him qualified when it comes to the economy. When Macron first ran for president, he promised deep economic reforms to effect concrete change in France and to transform foreign investors’ perception of the country and its economy. He dropped the tax rates on firms from 33.3% to 25% and transformed a €20 billion a year tax credit into a permanent reduction on social security contributions for employers to help slash the cost of labor. After stopping the wealth-tax, he introduced a one time levy on capital gains to stimulate investment in companies and the real economy in a trickle-down fashion. It is questionable whether that actually worked though… According to a study by France’s Institute for Public Policies, the wealthiest 1% in France have not invested more in the economy, even though they saw an average increase of 2.8% in their income after taxes and benefits. The wealthiest 0.1% experienced a leap of 4%. This all led to Macron being known as the président des riches. But, the average French citizen also experienced a 1.6% increase in the standard of living during Macron’s presidency. While that is a great achievement, the rich still benefited the most from Macron’s policies. Whether that is a problem, is for you to decide.

During the pandemic, France’s GDP, like that of every other country, registered a historic dip. In France, it was an 8% dip, which is relatively high, but France managed to rebound from that. In 2021, GDP growth in France reached 7% and the country is already back at pre-pandemic levels now. That recovery was and is one of the strongest in the Eurozone! But France did not only manage to grow its GDP back to pre-pandemic levels but its unemployment rate is also at its lowest since 2008. A historical achievement by Macron and his government. Macron also made true on his promise that he would make France more attractive to foreign investors. In 2020, France led the European countries with the most foreign investment projects over the UK and Germany. 

But, again, not all was great. France added another €7.3 billion to its trade deficit of €65.2 billion in 2020 and the main reason why unemployment has gone down is that a lot of low-security jobs have been added. That means firms can lay off employers without real and serious causes and without grounds. In 2020, 12.4% of France’s workforce held low-security jobs. 

France has also experienced a surge of protests called the Yellow Vest protests.

These protests criticized a rise in fuel prices and Emmanuel Macron’s leadership overall. November 17, 2018, marked the first and biggest day of road blockades across France, with nearly 290,000 protesters. On the third weekend of mass demonstrations, violence erupted in Paris and an elderly woman in Marseille died after being hit with a tear gas grenade while closing her shutters. The protesters continued to block roads, shopping centers, and fuel depots. Macron then scrapped all planned fuel tax hikes for 2019 which would have further increased fuel prices. But protesters still burned cars and clashed with the police again. Macron then spoke to his people on December 10, 2018, accepting his share of responsibility for the crisis and outlining financial measures such as a rise in the minimum wage and tax-free overtime pay. 21 million people watched him speak that day. From then on, the number of protesters decreased. Overall, 10 people died during the protests and hundreds were detained. Regardless, Macron’s presidency had its ups and downs but overall the French seem to think it was not too bad since Macron is once more favored to win the election. 


Expected results

Currently, The Financial Times reports Macron polling at 30%, nearly 13% ahead of his fiercest competitor Marine Le Pen. He is looking his best in the polls since early 2019; as already said above, that is probably largely due to France’s recovery from the pandemic and his handling of the war in Ukraine. Le Pen is currently polling at 17.6% and Jean-Luc Mélenchon is expected to win 13.0% of the votes, having overtaken Éric Zemmour and Valérie Pécresse, who are now polling at 11.7% and 11%, in the last few weeks. They lost 3% and 6.5%, respectively, while Mélenchon gained 3%. These intention polls are averages of ten different polls organized by different pollster organizations.

The Economist has more polls and predictions for the election, including calculated chances of the candidates progressing to round two and winning the presidency. It also shows how likely certain outcomes were in the past; for example, in December, the Economist predicted Macron would have only won 52% of the votes against Pécresse in a second round matchup. Now, he would win about 66%. According to them, Macron’s chances of progressing to round two are at 99/100 at the moment. The only person who comes close is Le Pen with 76/100. The others only have chances between 7 and 14/100. Therefore, the most likely matchup in the second round is between Le Pen and Macron, the same as in 2017. This time around, Macron is expected to win 60% of the votes; in 2017, he won 66%. So, the second round would be closer than last time but Macron is expected to have a higher advantage over the other candidates in the first round than he did last time. This is because in 2017, the right-wing candidate François Fillon, who won 20% of the votes in the first round, endorsed Macron in the second round. This time around, the right-wing candidates are not expected to support Macron, since their policies are closer to Le Pen’s.

All factors taken into consideration, Macron is expected to win but the second round might be closer than you would think when looking at the first round polls. There are nearly two weeks left until the French will go to the booths for the first round, so everything is still possible; in particular since the war in Ukraine and the consequences it will have on the energy supply are topics, which will be important to many voters. We might see a matchup between Macron and Mélenchon if he continues to rise in the polls. But, if nothing decisive changes anytime soon, Macron will be the re-elected president of France for another five years.