French Elections Show Increasing Fragility of Moderates in Europe

Fabrizio Montisci, Staff Writer

On April 24, the Le Pen family lost a French Presidential Election for the eighth time in its political history. But unlike in 2007, when Jean-Marie Le Pen received only 10% of votes, or 2012, when Marine Le Pen received a mere 17% of votes, the 2022 French Presidential Elections showed a much more worrying scenario, as Marine Le Pen did lose the election, but received 42% of preferences in the process. This election, to many, is the symptom of a concerning European phenomenon which sees the rapid downfall of moderates and leftists while right-wing populists gain momentum in Europe’s political landscape. 

The key to understanding this fragile moment in French politics lies in understanding how France’s presidential election system functions. The two candidates gaining the most votes in the first round will face each other in the second round, unless a candidate reaches 50% of preferences in the first round, as per state regulations. What this implies is that while voters have more freedom to demonstrate their own political beliefs in the polling station in the first round, with all candidates participating, they will most likely have to either abstain from voting or put aside their political beliefs in favor of what they deem as the least damaging choice in the second round. This is exactly what took place on April 24, when Emmanuel Macron, president of the French Republic since 2017, won 27% of votes in the first round only to then receive over 58% of votes in the second and final round, Ministry of the Interior records show. And while in previous elections Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen did not manage to face their opponents in the second round at the presidential elections, 2017 and 2022 symbolize the breaking of such a norm. 

At this point, understanding how Marine Le Pen has managed to go from being one of the most disliked politicians in the country to being the second most liked option in the 2022 elections is key to developing a better strategy against the rising far-right in France. Overall, the strategy Le Pen developed to win the favor of the French was both incredibly creative and effective. Over the course of her campaign, she softened her image as a far-right representative to prove to the French that she could better represent the needs of a larger portion of the population. Yohan Brun, a student from Stiring-Wendel that was interviewed by The New York Times, said “she has softened, she is more composed, calmer, more serene … she cares more about the French people than the other candidates.” Le Pen went from vowing to have France leave the European Union and Eurozone to giving up such an idea, turning to promising deep reforms instead, Euractiv reports. Of course, perceived character change alone wasn’t the only trigger of Le Pen’s growing consensus. The economic and social crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine also had their impact, and just like in other locations, being in the opposition like Marine Le Pen meant that her party did not have to face the consequences and difficulties that come with forming legislation during unexpected socio-economic crises, all aspects of governance which President Emmanuel Macron faced over the past five years. When the “yellow vests” shook the nation between 2018 and 2020, Le Pen did not miss the chance to blame Macron for the unrest, as her Twitter record shows. 

While Macron has still been able to keep a certain distance from the far-right and while he did receive a major degree of trust from voters outside of his party, now comes the hard task of living up to the promises he has not maintained in his last term and the ones he has recently made to gain popularity among the French in light of the 2022 elections. Célia Belin, a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution who was interviewed by The Washington Post, commented on the issue by stating that “[while] he is validated with a mandate to continue the work … no honeymoon is to be expected at all.”

These next five years at the Élysée will be crucial for Macron, as he is faced with two fundamental choices: Either maintain the status quo and face political downfall, or act on his promises with effective policies to conclude his presidential career as a resolute and global leader, capable of uniting the French people in spite of their differences. The choice is fundamentally his and its outcome will have a deep impact on the future political development of the European continent as a whole.