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French presidential election too close to call

This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: French presidential election too close to call

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times. This week, we’re looking at the French presidential election. The first round of voting takes place on April the 10th. That will cut the current field of 12 candidates down to two, who are widely expected to be President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National. To discuss the election, I’m joined this week by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the FT’s world news editor and a former Paris bureau chief, and Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. In the most recent polls for the second and decisive round of voting, Marine Le Pen has closed within just a couple of points of President Macron. So could a far-right candidate really win the presidency of France?

[MUSIC FADES]

Gideon Rachman
In his first big election rally, President Macron issued a stark warning to his supporters.

Emmanuel Macron
(Speaking in foreign language with overlapping English translation) Look at what happened with Brexit and so many other elections. What looked improbable actually happened. So I am telling you very strongly tonight, nothing is impossible.

Gideon Rachman
Macron has spent much of this year consumed by diplomacy over the war in Ukraine, but opinion polls show that Ukraine’s only the second biggest concern of French voters. By far the biggest issue is the cost of living, which is rising partly because of higher energy prices. It was anger about rising petrol prices that partly provoked many months of protests and riots led by the so-called yellow vests in 2018-2019.

(Protest noise plays in the background)

Gideon Rachman
Macron’s opponents have always portrayed him as a president for the rich. In a recent interview, Marine Le Pen argued that the key cause for the French state is to protect the weak and vulnerable, and that’s why she claimed to differ from Macron.

Marine Le Pen
(Speaking in foreign language)

Gideon Rachman
The current Le Pen’s surge in the polls suggest that this kind of rhetoric is cutting through. But of course, the first round of voting hasn’t even taken place yet so I began my discussion with Anne-Sylvaine Chassany and Bruno Cautrès by asking Bruno whether it’s safe to assume that this election will come down to a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Bruno Cautrès
One of the most important thing of that electoral campaign has been the very, very tough competition inside the far-right between Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. But now we can really say that it would be a huge, huge, huge surprise that it won’t be Macron-Marine Le Pen. The only thing we just don’t know exactly is going to be the lead between the two. Macron is clearly leading, but it is certainly still because of the rally around the flag effect. Macron is estimated about 28-29, but eventually, it could be a bit lower. Marine Le Pen, she’s 20-21. Eventually, she could be a little bit over. But yes, it’s very likely that she’s going to be the same, second round.

Gideon Rachman
And Anne-Sylvaine, then obviously attention focuses on the final, decisive round. And there the opinion polls are much more surprising, and in some ways, I’m sure very alarming for the French establishment. In that one poll I saw put Macron at 53, Le Pen at 47, which is way higher than she got last time.

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
Indeed, so same scenario, Macron vs Le Pen, but with a much narrower gap between the two, which, to be honest, is a big setback for Macron after five years of presidency because he really campaigned last time as the bulwark against the far-right. And we already know that it’s failed to some extent. And what is even more worrying is that the polls are now putting them within the margin of error. So this has caused a lot of alarm among the campaign of Emmanuel Macron.

Gideon Rachman
Bruno, what is the mood amongst the Macron campaign? Because really, until those polls came out, what, about, you know, a week ago, or sort of mid-February, the assumption was Macron was going to win. Are they now beginning to fear that France could be in for a big political shock?

Bruno Cautrès
Yes, this tough to have, so fears indeed. And it’s difficult to know if they are real fears, or actually, if they want to mobilise the grassroots and the electorate by saying that there is a danger. But it’s true that if Macron win the election, it’s not going to be the same victory as the last time. And so they are not exactly panicking. It could be exaggerating to say so, but they have some fears, and they start to get worried.

Gideon Rachman
And Anne-Sylvaine, I mean, do you think there’s already a sense that Macron may have misplayed this election campaign because he’s barely campaigned in the first round? He’s been very preoccupied in international diplomacy.

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
Yes. He didn’t campaign until very recently, finding all sorts of excuses not to campaign. And Ukraine really provided him with the perfect excuse because he was able to show the French electorate that he was tackling far more important subject than the question of immigration or Islam. He was tackling war and peace in Europe and going to Moscow to meet President Putin and try to broker some sort of peace or ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. I think he and his supporters and his campaigns have realised it’s no longer possible to do that, for him. He really needed to galvanise his base, as Bruno says, because of the narrowing polls. And so we’ve seen him now a bit more on the ground, doing rallies and engaging with voters trying to defend his record. He did this very big rally over the weekend where he actually, you know, tried to galvanise his base by raising the spectre of not winning. So yes, I think they have realised that they needed to press ahead a bit.

Gideon Rachman
And Bruno, I mean, Anne-Sylvaine mentions this focus on Ukraine, understandable in its way. Do you think, however, that that hasn’t really worked for Macron? That his efforts to project himself as the statesman protecting peace in Europe for whatever reason, perhaps because it wasn’t that successful, so far have not bolstered his image?

Bruno Cautrès
I think that it has worked in the beginning because of this typical reaction of public opinion, which is supporting the executive when there is a major international crisis. But I think that the effect of that started to evaporate because the sooner the election, the more the voters think about what would be a second mandate of Macron, with plenty of question marks. Macron did not clarify really what he wants to do for a second mandate. In the beginning of Macron campaign, he was saying that he want to continue the pension reforms pushing the age of pension to the age of 65, making some social benefits conditionally to work at a later date. And so he gave some signs to the centre-right in the beginning, and since recently, you want to correct by giving signs to the centre-left. But many centre-left voters have a big question mark regarding Macron. It is the question of sincerity of the left engagements of Emmanuel Macron and also Macron overclaim that he would change the method of governing. That he is not going to make it the same way, that he is going to make it more participative democracy. That many voters have a big question mark regarding that because it did organise big national debates after the yellow vest. He also organised a citizen convention about climate change, but we have not seen anything coming out from these two innovations anyway.

Gideon Rachman
And Anne-Sylvaine, do you think also he was always going to have a hard time because last time he was a new force? I think his book was even called Revolution, and he could plausibly claim he wasn’t from the right or the left. He was this new guy everybody could get behind, but he is now the establishment. And France, as long as I can remember, has been in quite a sort of, er, as the British would say, grumpy, angry, anti-establishment mood. So he’s the target now, isn’t he?

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
Yes, and one might argue that he was always the establishment. And actually the French have realised he was the establishment from the beginning. They were giving him the benefit of the doubt in the beginning because actually he portrayed himself as this political novice who wanted to reinvent politics. He wanted to tear down the barriers to new entrants. He wanted to be the voice of the new entrants. You know, in the markets like start-up nations, tearing down the political parties viewed as ossified and old and torn by their inner contradictions on all sorts of subject. But now, five years later, he doesn’t have the effect of novelty any more. He’s shown in many ways that he was the pure product of the French establishment. His way of governing has been really top-down and not this grassroot spirit he had in the beginning of his campaign in 2017, where he had all these guys, if you remember these youngsters with colourful T-shirts knocking on doors and gathering the wishes of the French people and then, you know, all these wishes were becoming new ideas, supposedly, et cetera, et cetera and being a part of his programme. After five years, we’ve seen how he governs. He governs in a very tight way, ave l’Elysée with a very close circle of highly-trained technocrat. You know, he is himself a highly-trained technocrat, and so he’s managed to antagonise and disappoint a big part of the electorate. And I think Bruno pointed out, that is mainly the centre-left because they also thought that he was this liberal guy, and he is, in many ways. But he’s also had to shift to the centre-right because this is where the bulk of the electorate is and this is where the fight is. So yes, it’s going to be trickier for him to give a sense of hope. The hope is no longer there.

Gideon Rachman
And Bruno, I mean, turning to the opposition, are you surprised by how resilient and effective Marine Le Pen has been? I mean, after the last election, you know, many people were writing her off, that she’d had a terrible campaign, that the future was her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen or it would be Eric Zemmour, that the French electorate had sort of definitively rejected her. And yet here she is, and with a very good chance.

Bruno Cautrès
It’s true that she has shown an amazing resilience. And as you say, that five years ago, when she lost the debate with Macron between the two rounds, her situation looked absolutely desperate, like if she has lost the chance. And inside her party, it was very tough in the beginning for her. And more impressive is her capacity to resist in the context of competition with Zemmour. I’ve been always having some doubt about the dynamics of Zemmour because we could see clearly what was going to save Marine Le Pen, what has saved Marine Le Pen; it is her sociological background. The core electorate of Marine Le Pen, it is still lower level, middle class, poor workers, employees with a short-term contract, people in difficult social situations. And since few years, it is really the sociological background of the Marine Le Pen electorate. So I think that the loyalty of the working class to Marine Le Pen and the poor workers and the young poll worker particularly has saved Marine Le Pen. On the top of that, you can add some very significant errors and very big mistakes that Eric Zemmour has done during the campaign, particularly in the context of the Ukraine war, when Eric Zemmour did that amazing statement that we should not welcome refugees from the Ukraine, that they should stay in Poland. And so Eric Zemmour gave the feeling that he was someone with no humanity. And at that stage, Marine Le Pen took the lead and the support of the lower classes has been obviously extremely important for her.

Gideon Rachman
And Anne-Sylvaine, do you think that Le Pen has also been helped in a way by the appearance of a candidate in the shape of Eric Zemmour who talks about deporting a million people from France and so on? And that her whole project has been over the last five-ten years to convince voters that she’s not a crazy extremist? And so she’s now sort of in a way being positioned further to the centre without necessarily having to move.

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
It’s true that Zemmour has allowed her to give more credit to her strategy to detoxify her party. Her party, founded by her quite toxic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. I mean, Zemmour, because he was so radical in his positions on migrants, on gender equality as well, and also on this subject, he was far more radical and frankly racist and sexist and not really shying away from these words. And that has made her look like a moderate, to some extent. She has instead focused on cost of living, as Bruno said, you know, the working class. She did a brilliant move with Ukraine, politically brilliant move by having some of her senior party members going to Poland with a bus and trying, you know, get some of the Ukrainian migrants back to the south of France, in the south of France in Perpignan, where you have a strong far-right base, and showing generosity. It was quite a U-turn, but also a brilliant move in the campaign, as Bruno mentioned, compared with Zemmour a complete lack of generosity and solidarity for the Ukrainian people.

Gideon Rachman
But Bruno, I mean, obviously we’re talking in a way about image, about repositioning, detoxification, but what is the actual reality? I mean, would you still describe Le Pen and her party as they have routinely been described for many years, as far-right? And what does that actually mean?

Bruno Cautrès
Yes, just has been published by a French think-tank, a very interesting study, which is looking carefully to the programme of Marine Le Pen and her positioning on different issues. And it is clearly still the same old programmes with the national preference, with a lot of things about immigration, national identity, Islam. What is interesting is that the programme of Marine Le Pen hasn’t changed, but it is the image of Marine Le Pen that has changed. And it’s what Eric Zemmour has done. Eric Zemmour has played like if it would be like a sponge coming on Marine Le Pen and absorbing the radicality of Marine Le Pen in the image. The big question is to know if that is going to work in the second round like it works at the moment and particularly for the first round. So it could be that in this second round, Emmanuel Macron is going to mobilise again, but anti-Marine Le Pen. And he’s starting to do it, which is to recall the last declarations of Emmanuel Macron when he’s campaigning was to re-explain the French, who is Marine Le Pen, and what is her Rassemblement National, that she is extremist person. That if she had won the previous election, there would be no vaccination, there would be no economic plans at the European level, it will be the government of fake news and these kind of things (inaudible). You can clearly see that Emmanuel Macron is trying to create the anti-Marine Le Pen France. But clearly, yes, Emmanuel Macron is really trying to get back to this fundamental, which is the opposition between the extremist, conservative, negative person versus Emmanuel Macron, the camp of the optimism, the camp of looking ahead and not looking in the back and these kind of things.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, Anne-Sylvaine, listening to Bruno, it sounds like, you know, we often talk about elections as a popularity contest. It sounds like he’s describing an unpopularity contest. You know, who scares the French more: Macron, who, you know, many people detest or Le Pen, who many people are terrified of? It’s not like a very positive, hopeful campaign.

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
Yeah, it’s a big difference from last time because Macron somehow had brought a little bit of positivity in the campaign in many ways, and he’s no longer doing that by definition because he’s been in power. He’s an incumbent, and he’s made mistakes. He’s antagonised a bunch of people. And there’s an anti-Macron France. There’s a deep dislike of him. I don’t know if I can say hatred of him. You know, you’re probably more knowledgeable about the tone here through the polls, but a lot of the people, especially on the left, who voted for him on the second round in 2017, the Mélenchon voters, for example, there’s a big question mark whether they are going to show up in the second round. I was looking at Pécresse’s voters. There’s a big question mark on Pécresse’s voters for the second round. I think, like something like 47 per cent polled in some of the polls are saying they’re not sure who to vote for in the second round. We’re talking about voters of Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse. And on top of that, there’s a huge abstention predicted, something around 30 per cent. So there’s a lot of uncertainty in the second round still.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And Bruno, before we get on to what either candidate would mean if and when they became president, I just like your view on this extraordinary, apparent collapse of the traditional French parties. It used to be that, you know, socialists were a huge force. The party of Mitterand and Hollande and so on. And there was always a centre-right party, elites and so on. But both the socialists and the centre-right, they are now, the Républicains led by Pécresse are doing terribly. What’s going on?

Bruno Cautrès
These two parties that, as you said, dominated French politics for many decades, are actually in a structural weakness. It’s not only that campaign. It started with Macron election five years ago and probably started a bit before. Actually, if you take Les Republicains, some people say that Valérie Pécresse is not campaigning very well, that she did a big fail in the first meeting that she did. That was quite a big meeting with a lot of expectation, and she did a big fail. But I don’t think it’s the question of the candidate performance. I really think it’s much more structural and in a certain way, much more difficult for Les Républicains because on the cultural politics issues — identity, immigration, blah, blah blah — they are actually squeezed by Rassemblement National and Eric Zemmour. And on the economy side — less tax, less public expenditures, less public deficits — on that side, they are also squeezed by Emmanuel Macron. He is clearly perceived by the French as a centre-right president, and he attracted many centre-right voters. The situation is probably more dramatic for the centre-left because it’s likely that there will be a supreme humiliation of the socialist candidate. Not only the socialist candidate is going to get a very, very small score, but she could be actually below the far-left. Not only below the Communist, but eventually below some of the far-left candidates. So for the Socialist Party, it’s the crossroad. They need to do something after the election and probably to decide where is their destiny — is it to become the left side of Emmanuel Macron or is it to create a new union of the left dynamics? The problem for them is that it is like if they were back to the beginnings of the 1960s when the union of the left was actually with the leadership of the Communist. And now today with the leadership of La France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. So extremely difficult situation for the centre-left and for the centre-right.

Gideon Rachman
OK, let’s finish by looking ahead to beyond the second round. I’m not saying, Anne-Sylvaine, you know, you talk to most people and they say, sure, Marine Le Pen is doing well in the polls, but, you know, she probably won’t win, almost certainly won’t win. Which reminds me of what people were saying before Trump was elected, that Hillary was certain to win; of what people were saying before the Brexit referendum that, you know, Remain would win even though the polls were tight. And in both those cases, that was not true. And both those things — Trump, Brexit — were huge political moments, kind of revolutions in the west. How much of a revolution would it be for France and for Europe if Le Pen won?

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
It would be a massive moment, obviously. You know, the second-largest economy in the Eurozone electing a far-right president. Clearly Eurosceptic. Clearly against a lot of what the EU stands for. Clearly willing to cause trouble in Brussels. So that would be a massive moment for France and Europe.

Gideon Rachman
Would she essentially be the European Trump or is that too facile?

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany
I don’t know. She would try to seek alliances with probably the likes of Viktor Orban, who just won re-election. She will probably try to build anti-immigration alliances and try to reform the EU from the inside. That said, I think she is quite isolated the way Viktor Orban is also quite isolated in Europe at the moment, because Europe, the European Union is quite different from what it was in 2017. Post-pandemic and also because of the war in Ukraine, the European Union is much more united, has a greater sense of purpose so I think she would be isolated on the economic front because this huge recovery package has been agreed. And so the paradigm of the European Union has shifted during the pandemic and, you know, more geared towards expenditures, stimulus and the sentiment towards Putin. She was clearly in awe of Putin, Vladimir Putin. This is quite an isolated position at the moment, given the war in Ukraine.

Gideon Rachman
Again, Bruno, to finish, I mean, obviously, as I say, most people still do expect Macron to win and he is still ahead in the polls in the head-to-head. Would a second Macron term be significantly different do you think from the first Macron term?

Bruno Cautrès
Difficult to say. Macron told the French that the second mandate of Macron would be a change in the method, the method of governing and the method of reforming France. But I think that Macron has the same project. As in the beginnings, he want to modernise and he want to modernise à la française. It’s not going to be like a Thatcherite revolution. It’s not at all that. It is actually to make the state and the public sector more efficient. The diagnostic five years ago was that actually the French social model that we are very attached to in France and that used to be very efficient to reduce inequalities was over, and that we were facing new inequalities with the new dynamics on the labour market, and that the French social model protects the ones that are already protected and do not protect the ones that are taking risks. And he wanted to change that. I think Macron still trusts on that. You know that you can do only two mandates as the French executive president. So the big question is to know if you can do just two mandates for the second mandate, what are you doing? Are you completely liberating your energy and your projects and making very, very structural reforms? Or, on the contrary, do you want to get back France to more quiet times? Very important point is that France is in a state of permanent crisis since more than three years. We’ve got the yellow vest. We’ve got the pension reform system demonstrations. Then we’ve got the Covid. Then we have the Ukraine war. It’s too much. The state and the mood of the population is with many fears, uncertainties. People have plenty of question mark. What happened to France? And I’m not sure that Macron can really make very, very significant reform. He’s probably going to do exactly the same as in the first mandate but improving the governing style. At least he has announced that he would like to generalise consultation with the population, deliberation with the population. Let’s hope that he will do it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
That was Bruno Cautrès of Sciences Po in Paris, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. I was also talking to my FT colleague, Anne-Sylvaine Chassany. Thanks for joining us, and please join me again next week.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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