Opinion Four unsettling takeaways from the French election’s first-round results

Vote projections for President Emmanuel Macron and presidential challenger Marine Le Pen are broadcast on a screen at an election night event for Le Pen in Paris on April 10. (Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg News)

The results of the first round of the French presidential election are anything but comforting. They show an incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, who performed better than initially expected but nowhere near as well as he should have. Most of all, they show a far right at the gates of power, with a real chance of winning the final round in two weeks.

Until now, Macron has essentially declined to campaign, styling himself as a wartime president negotiating the bloody conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But French voters are skeptical, and the next two weeks might not be enough time for Macron to fend off far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Here are the key story lines of Sunday’s results:

1

The election is now Macron’s to lose

The French president, whose lead in the polls rapidly diminished in the lead-up to the first round of the vote, fared slightly better than anticipated. He came in at about 28 percent, roughly five points ahead of Le Pen’s 23 percent. Though the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon nearly topped Le Pen, the final vote — as it was in 2017 — will be a face-off between the embattled Macron and Le Pen, who is more popular than ever despite her explicit ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The key question is whether, over the next two weeks, the nominally “centrist” Macron, whose presidency has seen a slew of right-wing economic reforms, can persuade a fragmented political left to side with him against Le Pen. The left stood behind him in 2017, but whether it will in 2022 is not certain. Largely because of the war in Ukraine, Macron has not made any real effort to campaign in this election. Le Pen, meanwhile, has focused on the rising cost of living — an issue on the minds of many voters. What little time remains in the campaign might not suffice for Macron to convince left-wing voters that he has heard their concerns.

Read my column from June 2021: The real winner in France’s regional elections wasn’t Macron or Le Pen

2

The traditional parties have vanished, and extremes are on the rise

The French political landscape has been radically transformed. More than 50 percent of voters on Sunday backed extremist parties of the far right or far left. The two venerable political parties that ran the country between the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 and the election of Macron in 2017 — Les Républicains, the center-right party that derives from the template of Charles de Gaulle, and the Socialists, who advanced much of the French welfare state’s programs — have both faded from view.

Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for Les Républicains, announced a crowd-funding campaign after Sunday’s results because her failure at the polls means she wouldn’t qualify for partial government reimbursement for campaigns that cleared a threshold of 5 percent of the vote (she earned only 4.8 percent). Pécresse said she was personally in debt for 5 million euros for campaign expenses. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris and the party’s candidate for president, earned only 1.8 percent of the vote.

3

The far right has never been stronger

In her third run for the Élysée Palace, Le Pen fared better than she ever has, and will likely outperform her 2017 final score in two weeks. But she was not the only far-right contender on the ballot: Éric Zemmour, the former Le Figaro columnist, dominated headlines for months and shaped the debate since the beginning with his innumerable provocations such as the “great replacement” conspiracy theory and incendiary comments on Vichy France and the Holocaust (Zemmour himself is Jewish but has deliberately whitewashed that dark chapter of French history).

The result is that, outside of Macron’s unwieldy and chaotic “centrist” camp, various shades of the far right received much more attention than they have in the past or than they otherwise would have if Macron’s party had not siphoned off so many from the two traditional parties. What is especially shocking is the way that many voters now see in what was once a fringe faction the genesis of a credible alternative.

Read my column: The threat of Trumpian tragedy looms over France

4

The French left is not ‘dead,’ it’s just fragmented

One particularly important story so far was the success of Mélenchon, the far-left firebrand who scored remarkably well at 22 percent and nearly edged Le Pen out of the final round. In fact, Mélenchon lost to Le Pen by only 422,000 votes. Had the voters who supported say, Hidalgo, gone for Mélenchon (roughly 617,000), then the far right would not be present in the final round of voting.

Although the Socialists have lost their once-towering stature, there is still considerable energy on the left, and it only seems to be seeking a leader. For now, that leader seems to be Mélenchon.

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