How first-round results affect Macron's chances of re-election
Jonathan Arnott
Faces of French 2022 presidential election candidates Emmanuel Macron (L) and Marine Le Pen (R) appear on a giant screen at "Pavillon Chesnaie du Roy" in Paris, France, April 10, 2022. /VCG

Faces of French 2022 presidential election candidates Emmanuel Macron (L) and Marine Le Pen (R) appear on a giant screen at "Pavillon Chesnaie du Roy" in Paris, France, April 10, 2022. /VCG

Editor's note: Jonathan Arnott is a former member of the European Parliament. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The most likely outcome remains the same: Two weeks from now, the French people expect to wake up and find President Emmanuel Macron re-elected to a second term in office.

But the dividing line is tight. It would take only one major slip from Macron, one major scandal, a key geopolitical event or just a severe lack of enthusiasm from centrist voters for Marine Le Pen to be elected president.

The two could not be more different: Macron is a former civil servant and investment banker; despite setting up his own political party, he is essentially the embodiment of the French establishment. Le Pen is the mistrusted outsider who has sought to rebrand the "Front National" as the "National Rally," aiming to rid it of racism and expelling her own father from their party in the process.

In recent years, those outside the political establishment have prospered across the Western world. But Macron is a smooth political operator, knowing that he can utilize Le Pen's previous support for Russia to his own advantage.

At first glance, the results of the first round of the French presidential election this year appear to be little more than a carbon copy of 2017. Five years ago, few had predicted that Macron would surge from nowhere with his fledgling party "En Marche!" to win the first round of the French presidential election.

The function of the first round of voting is to select the top two candidates for president, who then face off in a second ballot a fortnight later to determine the winner. This gives French people, in the words of the author of the French constitution, the opportunity to vote first with their "heart" and then with their "head." The system is intended as a bulwark against extremism.

Following the first-round result, the outcome in 2017 was in no real further doubt. Le Pen was in the infancy of her rebrand of the "Front National," hoping to take it from extremists to a respectable political party, but the French public were wary – and Macron was a new, surging force, elected by a margin of 66.1 percent to 33.9 percent in the end.

This year, the first-round results are almost identical. Le Pen has made modest progress since last time, whilst Macron has benefited from a huge collapse of the Republican vote. Western media has a tendency toward laziness in its usage of labels to describe candidates. Marxist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in third with over 20 percent of the vote, outperforming both expectations and exit polls, could be pigeon-holed as "far-left," whilst the anti-Islam candidate Eric Zemmour, who took 7 percent, and Le Pen herself are described as "far-right." By this token, more than half of those voting in the first round chose candidates who the media have described, in one way or another, as extremists.

The key difference this time is that the second round is genuinely competitive. Macron leads in almost every credible poll, with only AtlasIntel showing Le Pen leading by 1 percent.

Emmanuel Macron addresses voters after leading the first round in the polls in Paris, France, April 10, 2022. /VCG

Emmanuel Macron addresses voters after leading the first round in the polls in Paris, France, April 10, 2022. /VCG

But the margin of error for Macron this time is tiny. Numerous polls show Macron's current lead as being no closer than 52-48, and Le Pen saw a short-lived surge in support during the campaign last time before underperforming in the televised debate.

Nevertheless, French presidents rarely succeed in getting re-elected, and Macron is no longer the new face he once was. Instead, he presides over the cost of living crisis and spiraling inflation. Le Pen, meanwhile, has sought to distance herself from her earlier pro-Russian views and fight the campaign instead on domestic issues.

If Le Pen were to win, it would be a genuine shock felt throughout Europe. France is a major European nation, one traditionally at the heart of the European Union. She carries the same surname as her father; although she had him expelled after he described gas chambers in the Holocaust as a mere "detail" of history.

It is most likely though that Le Pen's campaign will fall short. In a two-candidate battle, she cannot avoid questions over Ukraine. A 9.4-million-euro loan to the then National Front by the First Czech Russian Bank in Moscow in 2014 will provide those in France who support Ukraine with ammunition to attack Le Pen's ties to Russia.

Le Pen also opposes French membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not wanting France to be drawn into broader conflicts. She is an ardent critic of the EU, believing it has too much power over French citizens, whilst now seeking reform rather than calling for outright withdrawal.

The traditional parties will once again coalesce around Macron because they are implacably opposed to Le Pen, but the chasm between politicians and their voters is widening.

Old-fashioned loyalties and influences are slowly dying out, and in a social media age, perhaps surprisingly, it appears that younger people are trending toward Le Pen.  Macron's campaign has made it clear that he plans to increase the retirement age, alienating a segment of his potential support. In order to win re-election, Macron relies upon the votes of those who dislike him, hoping they will go to the ballot box to oppose Le Pen as much as to support him.

Turnout will be the key: Macron should win, but it is by no means a guarantee.

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