Why is it Macron and Le Pen, again?

French president Emmanuel Macron will face off against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the country’s April 24 presidential runoff.

It is a rematch of sorts of the 2017 election. But the dynamics that gave voters a reprise of the Macron-Le Pen matchup reveal deeper shifts in French politics: a collapse of traditional parties, a mainstreaming of right-wing discourse, and a disunity among the left. All bring a degree of uncertainty to the election this Sunday, even if Macron is now favored to win.

Maybe nothing exemplifies this more than the implosion of France’s mainstream center-right and center-left parties in the first round of the elections on April 10. The candidates for the traditionally center-right Republicans finished behind two far-right candidates — Le Pen, of the National Rally, and the more extreme Éric Zemmour and his Reconquête party. The traditionally center-left Socialist candidate was demolished by the left-wing populist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise. In both cases, it was not all that close.

“We are absolutely seeing the collapse of the former mainstream right and former mainstream left in France in a really, really striking way,” said Sarah Wiliarty, an associate professor of government, specializing in Western European politics, at Wesleyan University.

Macron himself may be the biggest reason for the struggles of the mainstream parties, having captured the political center. He is pro-environment, pro-LGBTQ rights, and pro-European project. But, on the economy, he is much more the pro-business, lower-taxes type. “He stole from the moderates from the left and on the right,” said Rainbow Murray, an expert on French politics at Queen Mary University of London. “And the moderates, of course, are where the average voter is.”

This year, Le Pen built off her position in the 2017 runoffs by trying to frame herself as more mainstream. Some experts said the far-right’s ascendance has pulled the entire political discourse rightward in France. Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher in comparative law at Toulouse 1 Capitole University in France, said the “normalization” of the far-right has allowed more mainstream parties to absorb versions of their talking points — on issues like immigration and integration into French society.

But, since 2017, Le Pen has put even more effort into softening the edges of her extremist rhetoric and elevating a populist message that still captures a lot of the right. If you’re a voter who finds a message like Le Pen’s appealing, “do you,” as Wiliarty put it, “go for a watered-down version from the Republicans? Or do you go for the real deal?”

All of that has combined to help give France another showdown between Macron and Le Pen. Unlike last time, Macron has been tested in office — and at times, faced real resistance to his agenda. Though Macron’s lock on a second term isn’t as sure as some experts expected, as Sunday approaches, he is building about a 10 percentage-point lead in polls.

A lot will depend on the voters whose candidates didn’t make it through the first round, specifically those who supported Mélenchon, who came in third. The question is who they will support in the runoff — if they support anyone at all.

Macron’s agenda has proven to be more right-of-center, which leaves some leftist voters with two less-than-satisfactory choices. Macron has tried to broaden his appeal on the left as April 24 gets closer. But this election may be less about a vote for Macron than about a vote against Le Pen.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, center, and supporters react after seeing preliminary results during the first round of voting in the French presidential election in Paris on April 10.
Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

Sunday’s contest may turn on how many voters make that choice — and whether it will be enough to give Macron a real mandate to govern.

“If he’s just the man who could barely beat Le Pen, then that’s going to make it much harder for him to push things through,” Murray said. “So he needs to win. But he needs to win credibly.”

In the first round of France’s presidential elections, on April 10, Macron won just shy of 28 percent of the vote. Le Pen came in second, with a tiny bit more than 23 percent. Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate, fell just short of a spot in the runoff, with 22 percent. Everybody else delivered single-digit results.

The results are maybe not that unexpected. While experts said it’s pretty remarkable that France’s mainstream left and right parties have practically disappeared on the national level (it’s a little more nuanced in local politics), political parties are traditionally a bit weaker in France, and party affiliation and organization is less deeply rooted than in other parts of Europe (which have also seen political fragmentation, if not to the same degree.)

Macron, after all, created his own party, La République En Marche. In 2018, Le Pen renamed the far-right National Front, whose leadership she inherited from her even-more-radical father, to the National Rally.

It is a sign that the parties may be mutable, and that the pull comes more from the candidates and their politics. But Le Pen and Macron are not running as exactly the same politicians they were in 2017.

Le Pen learned lessons from 2017, and has tried to detoxify some of her party’s politics to appeal to more mainstream voters. She has emphasized economic issues, like protecting French workers. She’s also tried to tweak her most controversial policies. For example, she has shifted from calling for an aggressive curtailing of immigration, instead supporting a referendum for France to decide. She also no longer wants France to leave the EU, but does still want to implement policies to vastly weaken it.

This “un-demonization” strategy is a lot more cosmetic than anything else. “The heart, the soul of the far-right is still rotten to the core,” Alouane said. “It’s still the same party, but with a different face. It’s plastic surgery.”

If political plastic surgery was the strategy, Le Pen looked even more mainstream compared to the more radical right-wing party that arose alongside of her, which did push the kind of racist, overly anti-immigrant rhetoric that Le Pen had tried to edit. Zemmour, the candidate to her right, also got a lot of media attention — which may have helped Le Pen escape some scrutiny. “She was both clever and got lucky,” Wiliarty said. (Zemmour received about 7 percent of the vote in the first round, and has endorsed Le Pen for the runoff.)

Macron also isn’t the same candidate as in 2017. Then, Macron was the “wunderkind,” a political outsider-ish who managed to be a sort of anti-establishment establishmentarian, promising a pragmatic and anti-populist presidency. He was pro-EU, and pro-Western values in the wake of Brexit and Trump, and he was framed as an antidote to both.

Now, he’s got a term in office for voters to scrutinize. “It’s easier for the other candidates to attack him. He’s in a weaker position now than he was in 2017,” said Francesca Vassallo, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, who studies French and European politics.

French President and candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron addresses supporters after the first round of France’s presidential election, in Paris on April 10.
Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

The populist “yellow vest” uprising threatened Macron’s presidency early on. The protests began in 2018 over a proposed fuel tax hike, framed as an effort to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels, but morphed into larger grievances about France’s economy and Macron as a president for the rich — especially as Macron took actions like abolishing a wealth tax. Then, Covid-19 consumed Macron’s presidency, and now, the crisis in Ukraine, along with price hikes because of inflation. Though this may not be surprising from a guy who started his own political party, voters have bristled at his perceived arrogance.

France’s post-Covid-19 economic recovery has been strong, and Macron has delivered on promises to attract business and tech. But Macron’s policies of tax cuts and welfare and pension reform have contrasted sharply with the national mood, where French voters are worried about price increases. As experts said, his policy manifesto looks a lot like what you’d expect from a center-right Republican. “His ideological shift in both economic and social terms has been towards the right,” Murray said.

Macron, in 2017, trounced Le Pen, winning about two-thirds of the vote. He appealed to the middle — on the right and the left. But he also was the new guy, who promised an untested vision. Even for many left-wing voters who may not have loved all of his policies, he was a clear alternative to Le Pen’s extremism.

The wild card is whether that will hold true in 2022. The fear is that left-wing voters, especially those who opted for Mélenchon, will be disillusioned. “Macron or Le Pen, we’re screwed in any case. For my first election, I’d hoped for better,” an 18-year-old student and Mélenchon voter told France24.

About a quarter of French voters abstained in the first round on April 10, and the fear is that will happen again in the runoff. In particular, Mélenchon’s bloc of voters might abstain, or may even opt for Le Pen, seeing her economic populist message as more appealing than Macron’s technocratic one. Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate, has told his supporters to vote against Le Pen — but he has also stopped short of backing Macron. A recent poll showed a pretty even breakdown of Mélenchon voters, splitting into thirds on whether they will abstain, vote Macron, or vote Le Pen in the second round.

There was an assumption, likely made by Macron himself, that he could take the left for granted, “and they will support him because they have nowhere else to go,” Murray said.

“Which is an assumption that’s now being challenged because he’s now facing abstention from the left rather than supporting him against Le Pen,” she added.

Macron himself seems to be recognizing his missteps, and has tried to correct course on the campaign trail. Take his pension reform proposal, which included raising the retirement age to 65 from 62. As experts pointed out, this probably isn’t a great policy to ever introduce before a national election, but Macron has now said he’s open to a more incremental timeline, or raising the age to 64.

The question is whether Macron’s late-game pivot will be enough. Macron and Le Pen squared off in a debate Wednesday night, their only meeting before the vote. Macron dug into Le Pen’s ties to Vladimir Putin, a particularly salient issue amid the Ukraine war. Le Pen tried to frame Macron as out of touch. In 2017, Macron’s debate performance was decisive in his victory. This time around, Macron was also seen as having the edge; in at least one snap poll, 59 percent of people said Macron was the most convincing in the debate.

In the end, Macron may have done enough to secure a second term. Macron remains ahead in the polls, and many voters do understand the threat of Le Pen. Alouane said, in broad terms, especially for France’s most vulnerable, it is a “vote that stinks versus vote that kills.”

Demonstrators hold banners reading “For Social Justice” and “United Against the Far Right” during a protest against far-right politics in Paris, on April 16, ahead of the runoff vote on April 24.
Christophe Ena/AP

But maybe, as the United States can attest, voting against one person isn’t really the same as voting for a person. Macron may eke out a win, but that is unlikely to vanquish Le Pen and the far-right, and it may mean Macron begins his second term as a far weaker president.

And that may not just be based on Sunday’s results. As experts pointed out, France’s future will also be decided in the elections for France’s National Assembly later this spring. Experts said that if Macron wins the election Sunday, his party is likely to win control of the Assembly, but likely not with the majorities he had in 2017.

But, experts added, if Le Pen wins on Sunday, it may be the type of shock that fully rattles the electorate. “It is very likely that will be a strong backlash against her and her party,” Vassallo said. “And so people would vote for other parties and not for hers. This means she will be a president without having a political majority in the National Assembly. That is not fun.”

If that happens, it would restrain Le Pen’s domestic agenda, and make her a fairly weak president. But president nonetheless.