Forty years ago, on May 10, François Mitterrand made history, becoming the first socialist president of France since before World War II. In next year’s presidential election, the party the wily leader triumphantly brought to power in 1981 may make history again, but for a rather different reason. The Socialist Party runs the risk of not running twice in a row in the last ballot.
One year before any election, polls should be treated with caution. The history of France is littered with first favorites – Alain Juppé, Dominique Strauss-Kahn – who have never been to the Elysée. A year before the 2017 presidential election, Emmanuel Macron’s name had not been tested in a single poll. An average of polls this year, which assume that Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, will be the Socialists’ candidate, suggests the party would only get 8% in the first round. It would not be enough to take her to the second round. Worse yet, if she were to succeed and take on Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (RN), polls indicate Ms. Le Pen would win.
Four years after Mr Macron turned French politics upside down, the country’s once dominant forces – both left and right – have never looked so weak or unstable. The left remains divided. The Greens (Europe Écologie Les Verts) captured some big cities in the municipal elections last year. But at the national level, they struggle and are at odds with each other. Polls indicate that Yannick Jadot, who is expected to be the Greens’ presidential candidate, would also lose to Ms Le Pen in a second round. Last month he organized a meeting in Paris with other left-wing parties to try to chart a course for a common candidate. The effort failed, not least because Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of rebellious left-wing France, was absent, defying lockdown with a jaunt to Latin America to verify Bolivian socialism.
Things don’t look much better on the right. The Republicans are bleeding talent again. Mr. Macron has poached many of their moderates to serve in his government, including two prime ministers (Edouard Philippe and now Jean Castex) and a finance minister, Bruno Le Maire. Last week, in the midst of a great local drama, Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and former minister, also resigned from the Republicans. Ahead of the regional elections next month, he was furious that the party had refused an electoral deal with Mr Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) in Provence, in order to thwart Ms Le Pen’s candidate there.
As it stands, neither of the two strongest candidates for the right-wing presidency is even a Republican card-carrying member anymore. Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, and Valérie Pécresse, head of the Paris region, both left the party. At the heart of the Republicans’ bitter internal feud is how and whether to fight the far right. When he got out, Estrosi said that a right-wing faction with an ambiguous attitude towards the RN had “taken the party hostage”. Republicans, he said, must publicly state that their priority is to keep the RN out of power at all times.
What to think of this volatility? First, parties in France, which lack the tribal loyalty once enjoyed by those in Britain, for example, or Germany, are no longer a determining factor in electoral politics. Michel Barnier, the former European Commission negotiator on Brexit, may be hoping to run for president among the Republicans. But, “over the past five years,” says Emmanuel Rivière, of Kantar, a voting group, “the party that most French people feel closest to is ‘no party’.” Mr Macron exploited the tools offered by the constitution of the Fifth Republic, including the two-round election, to run for president without one. Mr Bertrand, who has declared his candidacy, is trying to do the same in 2022. If a candidate emerges who consistently votes better than Mr Macron against Ms Le Pen, that – rather than party support – could be the basis of ‘a serious presidential candidacy.
Second, there was a “right-wing», Or shift to the right, among the French electorate. Since 2017, the share of voters who describe themselves as right-wing has increased by five points, to 38%, according to the Foundation for Political Innovation, a think-tank; the one on the left fell by one point to 24%. It also blurred traditional voting models. In his time, Mitterrand could count on the votes of the Communist Party, then deeply rooted in industrial and mining areas, to help him win in the second round. Today, the main beneficiary of the workers’ vote is Ms. Le Pen’s RN. At least 48% of blue-collar workers said in a poll they would support her next year in the first round; only 2% would vote for Ms. Hidalgo and 4% for Mr. Jadot.
Third, this shift has been accompanied by an increasing convergence of views on cultural values between Republican and RN supporters. According to a study by the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a think tank, there is now almost no longer a gap between the two electorates on security, public order and attitudes towards Islam. When a group of (mostly) retired officers, many with links to the far right, signed a petition last month calling for the military to intervene to restore order, a astonishing 71% of Republican voters approved. This convergence is exactly what Ms Le Pen hopes to harness and use to split the Republican Party.
The collapse of traditional parties, which he himself designed, could help Mr Macron. Polls suggest that in 2022 he will face Ms. Le Pen again in a second round. Yet where the candidate in 2017 embodied a balance of left and right views, the incumbent president followed the right-wing turn of the electorate, appointing not only two center-right prime ministers, but Gerald Darmanin, his extremist Minister of the Interior. .
This carries a risk: that disillusioned left voters refuse to support Mr. Macron in the second round, even against Ms. Le Pen. It is precisely for this reason that the polls currently give Mr Macron a much slimmer victory over her than he did in 2017. “He really has to reach out to the left,” says an LREM deputy . Despite the dismay of all the other parties, Mr. Macron remains on uncertain ground. And, as France remembers Mitterrand’s first election, one characteristic in particular will undoubtedly be on Ms. Le Pen’s mind. It is in its third electoral campaign, just like Mitterrand during his triumph in 1981.