French Presidential Election, The Left Turns its Back on Macron

A punishing 3-hour debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on Wednesday revealed stark differences between the two candidates. Yet, many wonder if Macron has done enough to garner support from the disillusioned left.

Macron/Le Pen face off
Macron vs. Le Pen
by Thibaut Soulcié

On Sunday, French citizens will head to the polls for the second and final round of La Présidentielle. Unlike the United States, France’s elections take place in two rounds. The ballot for round one, which took place on April 10, contained 12 candidates. Current president Emmanuel Macron emerged in 1st place after earning 27.9% of the vote. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen came in 2nd with 23.1%, followed by left-wing populist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon with 22%, and far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour with 7.1%.

As a result, Macron and Le Pen will face off in round two on Sunday, just as they did 5 years ago. This time, however, the race is expected to be much closer. Macron can no longer count on support from the left as he did in 2017, while Le Pen is expected to pick up left-wing populists as well as those who voted for Zemmour. All eyes are on the Melenchon block and depending on the pollster, his supporters seem to be split into thirds—divided between Macron, Le Pen, and voters who are undecided or abstaining.

Debate Repeat
“We already saw this film”
“Don’t tell me the ending, I don’t remember it”
by Frédéric Deligne.

Melanchon has instructed his supporters to not vote for Le Pen. However, unlike Bernie Sanders who endorsed Hillary Clinton after he lost the Democratic Primary in 2016, Melenchon has failed to endorse Macron. Many young people across France plan to cast a vote blanc, leaving the presidential slot blank. Even more worrying for Macron is the fact that Le Pen has made huge gains in attracting young voters. According to France24, in the first round of voting, Macron trailed Le Pen in every age category except for voters over the age of 65.

A Bruising Debate

It was in this climate, that the two presidential finalists arrived at the studios of French television channel TF1 on Wednesday evening. Seated behind two shimmering gold desks, the candidates faced off for nearly 3 hours, graced by a projection of Le Palais de l’Élysée as their backdrop. While Macron’s popularity has nose-dived during his presidency, he is still favored to win. Despite the high stakes, however, both contenders appeared ready and well-hydrated for a prolonged wrestling match during which neither was seen pausing (by this reviewer) for even a sip of water.

Macron/Le Pen Debate
French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen faced off in a televised debate on Wednesday. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

As with American voters, the foremost issue in the mind of French citizens is the economy. Hence, the debate opened with a discussion of steady decreases in purchasing power. Next came Ukraine and a host of other issues including energy prices, climate change, education, France’s place in the European Union, religious freedom, immigration, and taxes. Each candidate backed their claims with statistics that were immediately refuted by their opponent. Verbal barbs were persistent but relatively tame compared to the inflammatory accusations we’ve grown accustomed to online.

By the end, it was clear that each candidate has a very different vision of where they think the country should head. I’ve provided brief summaries of a few of their positions below, sprinkling the text with political cartoons in the hopes of assuaging your concerns with light entertainment.

Making the French presidential election debate fun to watch.
The Macron Le Pen Debate
French citizens will end up loving it!
by Félix at Charlie Hebdo

The Economy

Both candidates prefaced their remarks about the economy by acknowledging the many French people they’d spoken with are having difficulty paying their bills. However, their proposals for easing household financial strain were very different. To combat rising energy costs, Macron wants to continue the price caps that his government has put in place for gas and electricity until the financial crisis resolves, while Le Pen advocates a permanent lowering of the value-added tax (TVA) on energy from 20% to 5%.

Le Pen’s proposal might sound attractive but Macron was quick to point out that Le Pen voted against the price caps which “blocked price increases of 40%, 60%, even 100% in certain energy sectors.” Macron, a former investment banker, claimed that lifting the caps, even if coupled with a lower TVA would have a disastrous impact on consumer energy costs. Le Pen countered by saying that she’d lower the TVA and maintain the price caps that she previously opposed.

Political parties, by Gorce
“Don’t forget that with extremist political parties there is generally only a single election: the one that leads them to power.”
by Xavier Gorce of Le Point

Le Pen also proposed temporarily lifting the value-added tax on 100 essential household items. This must have an appealing ring to every French citizen. Her suggested tax break would continue as long as the rate of inflation remains higher than the rate of economic growth, which she claimed was foreseen in current forecasts. Macron disputed that claim saying that the forecasts did not predict inflation higher than growth and adding that Le Pen’s proposed tax cut is inefficient and unjustly favors the well-to-do.

Russia and Ukraine

Not surprisingly, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine was next on the evening’s agenda. Le Pen, whose political party has received funding from a Russian bank, has been greatly criticized for her ties to Vladimir Putin. However, Le Pen began the evening throwing her support soundly behind the Ukrainian people. Macron returned repeatedly to Le Pen’s Russian financial ties. Le Pen defended herself, stating that she’d done nothing illegal by taking a Russian loan which she is paying back, and claiming that no French banks would lend her money. However, French banks did provide loans to Eric Zemmour’s party which is even further to the right, so Le Pen’s statement here is questionable.

Until the invasion, Le Pen had been a strong supporter of Russia, even condoning its annexation of Crimea. She made a point of stating that once a peace treaty is signed, she’ll seek to establish a tight relationship with Russia.

First Lady of Russia running in the French presidential election
No need to be president “I’m already first lady”
by BIche of Charlie Hebdo

The European Union

During the 2017 presidential campaign, Le Pen stood firmly against the European Union but during their final debate Macron won favor by exposing her incoherent plans to pull France out of the Eurozone. For this election cycle, she’s softened her stance on the EU but her plans seem equally muddled. She opposes many EU policies and repeatedly stated that she wants to build a “Europe of Nations”. What that entails and why it is better remains unclear.

One of Le Pen’s key talking points revolves around citizens of other European nations who are contracted by their employers to perform work in France. Those foreign employers pay employment taxes to their native country. On Wednesday, Le Pen complained that hundreds of thousands of such jobs were robbing France of valuable revenue. Macron claimed that the numbers are closer to 50,000 workers and that France benefits from the same privilege when it sends its citizens to fulfill contracts in other European countries.

Le Pen also advanced that France should withdraw from the European energy market and return to a system where they regulate their own energy prices. Macron acknowledged that some reforms were needed in the EU system but that it was important for Europe to remain a unified block when it came to negotiating and setting energy prices.

Europe of Nations
The Europe of Nations… Anyway, it’s more fun!
sketched during the debate by Cambon

Social Services

Two days after the first round of voting, Le Pen unveiled her new campaign slogan Pour tous les Français, “For all French people”. She repeated her new rallying cry at every opportunity throughout the debate. In this light she advanced her proposal that French citizens be first in line for overly-strained public housing slots. In her official platform on the matter, she states that giving priority to French citizens would rapidly produce over 600,000 available units. The implication being that all non-citizens currently in public housing would be evicted.

When questioned, however, Le Pen claimed that she was a victim of fake news and that she has never intended to evict current residents. She further advanced that since French people have paid for those dwellings, they rightfully deserve to have higher priority over foreign residents. Again, the statement is misleading. Most public housing residents, even those that are not citizens, hold jobs and pay French taxes. In addition, according to Le Monde, public housing construction is financed via government loans that are paid back over time through rent.

Impact of debate on voters
For 1/4 of French electors, the debate will have an impact on their vote.
“I need to watch the replay!”
by Coco of Charlie Hebdo

A long discussion also ensued over each candidate’s ideas about the age of eligibility for retirement benefits. Le Pen, who has won the favor of the working class, argues that the current age of 62 should be lowered to 60 for people that began their careers between the ages of 17 and 20. In an effort to stanch a rising deficit, however, Macron has proposed gradually raising the age of retirement to 65.

In countering Le Pen’s attack that his proposed plan is an “absolutely unacceptible injustice”, Macron explained that advances made in health care, life expectancy, and independent living offset the burden of having to work longer. He prefers raising the age of retirement to the alternative of raising taxes in order to pay for current retirement benefits, which he increased during his mandate. Interestingly, voters over the age of 65 strongly back Macron.

I want to obstruct the French presidential election.
“I muted when Macron came on… I only listened to Le Pen”
“Oh?!”
“I didn’t want to lose my desire to obstruct.”
by Aurel of Le Monde and Le Canard Enchainé

Reason to be Nervous or Hopeful

According to a poll taken by FranceInfo the day after the debate, Macron is leading Le Pen by more than 15 percentage points. But victory rests heavily on the participation of an apathetic electorate. Will the disenchanted bother to go to the polls when the candidate they’ve grown to dislike only slightly less than his adversary is expected to win anyway? Only time will tell.

Even more than usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Vote in the French presidential election anyway!
Going to vote while covering my nose, I don’t want to!
“And my ears.”
by Camille Besse

Other resources

  • Le Monde, Débat Macron-Le Pen : ce qu’il faut retenir du débat de l’entre-deux-tours de la présidentielle
  • RFI, Présidentielle française: un débat Macron-Le Pen musclé mais sans dérapages
  • FranceInfo, Présidentielle 2022 : les deux tiers des soutiens à Jean-Luc Mélenchon interrogés par La France insoumise choisissent de ne pas voter pour Emmanuel Macron
  • FranceInfo, Présidentielle 2022. Ils ont voté Mélenchon au 1er tour, pourquoi ces électeurs sont tentés par Le Pen au 2e tour
  • l’Usine Nouvelle, Les cinq passes d’armes du débat Macron – Le Pen sur l’industrie, l’économie et l’énergie
  • Youtube, Présidentielle 2022 : le débat entre Macron et Le Pen résumé en 6 minutes
  • France24, French presidential election coverage on FRANCE 24
  • France24, The Highs and Lows of Macron’s Five Years in Office
  • America, The Jesuit Review, Trump was never popular with young voters. So how did Marine Le Pen win over France’s youth?
  • Euractiv, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National revises stance towards EU and the euro

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

25 Comments

  1. My candidate got only 1.7 % in the first round of voting.

  2. Of course, Macron is center right, he even has Castex as PM lol!!

  3. Well done Carol. Loved the cartoons, Gorce in particular. (He is so good)
    Well, I didn’t vote on the first round. I can’t stand any of them really. Yet, I will vote tomorrow (the Americas vote on (Saturday) coz of time differences. I will vote Macron though I find him egotistic and incompetent. His handling of the COVID crisis was pitiful. But between la peste et le choléra, better Cholera, you don’t necessarily die…
    More seriously, Macron has no vision for France, only checks for this or that segment. But Le Pen is a racist left-over from France’s fascist days…
    So, Macron it will be. Now he may not necessarily have a majority in Congress… And that will be a mess. Imagine a “cohabitation” with Mélenchon.
    Bon week-end.

  4. Thank you for providing such a detailed assessment of the race.

    and adding that Le Pen’s proposed tax cut is inefficient and unjustly favors the well-to-do

    This doesn’t ring true to me. From the viewpoint of the consumer, value-added taxes work like sales taxes, which fall hardest on the poorest — so reducing them should benefit the poorest most. I would, however, want to know how Le Pen proposed to replace the revenue these taxes currently generate.

    Macron or his mainstream successors do, at least, have room to improve. Macron seems to have made just about every possible mistake. I know that for me, raising the retirement age would fall into the “never to be forgiven for all eternity” category.

    Interestingly, voters over the age of 65 strongly back Macron

    They can afford to — they’re already retired.

    However, Le Pen began the evening throwing her support soundly behind the Ukrainian people

    I don’t think she can be trusted. She keeps going back and forth about this issue and still wants a “tight relationship” with Putin’s gangster-regime after the war.

    Macron trailed Le Pen in every age category except for voters over the age of 65

    This is astounding, and should be a real wake-up call to the political establishment. I’ve been saying for some time about the US and the West in general, if the political mainstream won’t listen to the voters’ real concerns, they’ll turn to those who will listen, whoever that is. If Le Pen got more votes than Macron in every age bracket under 65, even with Zemmour on the ballot to divide the nativist vote, the writing is clearly on the wall for the future.

    It seems that each time, Le Pen comes closer to winning. If the trend continues, eventually she will win. It might have happened this time if not for the Ukraine war, which called attention to her coziness with Putin.

    Voters have real and legitimate concerns about immigration, culture, and national sovereignty. As long as mainstream politicians ignore those concerns or respond with name-calling, the voters will keep looking elsewhere in growing numbers, which may ultimately mean putting some dangerous characters in power. The UK got lucky in having one mainstream politician, Boris Johnson, who does listen, and who at least got the country out of the anti-democratic, German-dominated European Union (a scandalous three years after the voters demanded that it be done). If not for Johnson, UK voters might eventually have gotten exasperated enough to elect someone like Nigel Farage as prime minister, who would be genuinely dangerous in that role, as Le Pen probably would be as president of France. France needs a Boris Johnson.

    For this election, I guess it will be for the best if Macron wins. But the amount of nose-holding involved in choosing the lesser of two evils is getting beyond what voters can reasonably be expected to tolerate.

    • I agree with your understanding of the TVA Infidel. I had the same reaction to Macron’s statement, that lowering it would favor the rich. Especially since Le Pen stipulated that the tax would only be cut for essential household items (as opposed to yachts and sports cars, for example). I’d like to know if Macron has justification for his stance or if he just threw out that statement as a smokescreen.

      Macron wants to phase in the higher retirement age, if I recall 64 by 2028 and 65 by 2031. So, people have time to plan for it. The French receive so many more services than we do here in the U.S: Health care, longer vacation pay, free college tuition, preschool, etc. In addition, we can’t collect our full benefits until we’re 67. So, I feel this is an area where Macron seems reasonable. You have to pay for this stuff somehow and taxes are already quite high, especially for the upper class.

      I was really surprised to see Le Pen ahead of Macron in all of those age brackets as well. Mélenchon, however, beat Le Pen in the two youngest brackets. And, there are 8 other candidates that pulled in roughly 20% of the vote. So, it’s difficult to make comparisons with our 2-party system. But I agree with your basic premise that politicians need to focus on people’s basic concerns and not stake their campaigns on issues on which most people are neutral. (Although it seems to have worked for Republicans who are slowing chopping away at women’s reproductive rights.)

      I agree that Le Pen can’t be trusted. Her platform too often shifts with the prevailing winds. Were I French, I’d vote for Macron. The stakes are to high to leave it to chance.

  5. Huge relief today. Despite all his flaws, a Macron victory was essential for maintaining the Western alliance in behalf of Ukraine. Interesting that the poll you cited was close to the results I heard.
    LePen may have softened her image, but she’s still scary. She has said she won’t run again; I hope she’s true to her word in that regard. Whether her right wing replacement is even more radical is obviously a concern.
    Thanks, Carol. So valuable to get this information.

    • I agree Annie. Le Pen would not have been good. Her popularity has unfortunately steadily increased since she first arrived on the scene and she has a niece in the wings, ready to carry on the family torch. Le Pen still pulled in over 40% of the vote today which is a record breaker for the far right. It’s a bad trend that I’d love to see turn around.

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