Emmanuel Macron v Marine Le Pen | Decoding the 2022 French presidential elections

Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le have advanced to the final runoff on April 24.

April 15, 2022 11:13 am | Updated April 17, 2022 01:08 pm IST

A screen shows French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at her election day headquarters, in Paris.

A screen shows French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at her election day headquarters, in Paris. | Photo Credit: AP

Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron will face Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential elections being held in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war. The two leaders advanced to the next stage after the first round on April 10. Both are now campaigning to win the decisive runoff on April 24.

Opinion polls suggest President Emmanuel Macron, seeking a second five-year term, remains the front-runner. His nationalist rival Marine Le Pen, however, appears to have significantly narrowed the gap from 2017, when he trounced her in the same presidential runoff.

How are presidential elections held in France?

The French presidential elections follow a two-round system and is held every five years. The candidates who finish first and second in the initial round will go through to a runoff vote on April 24. The winner of the second round will take office on May 13.

Technically, a contender can be declared a winner outright by securing more than 50% of the vote in the first round. However, that has never happened in France.

About 48.7 million French, registered on the electoral rolls, will continue to use the manual system: paper ballots that are cast in person and counted by hand. Voters are to make their choices in a booth, with the curtains closed, and then place their ballot in an envelope that is then put into a transparent ballot box.

Who are the key contenders for the 2022 presidential race?

2022 is a repeat of sorts of the 2017 elections. In 2017, Mr. Macron trounced Ms. Le Pen by a landslide to become France’s youngest President at 39. His win was then seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

Marine Le Pen, leader of French far-right National Rally party and candidate for the 2022 French presidential elections at a press conference.

Marine Le Pen, leader of French far-right National Rally party and candidate for the 2022 French presidential elections at a press conference. | Photo Credit: BENOIT TESSIER

The scenario, however, seems to have changed in the closing stages of the 2022 campaign with issues of inflation, food and energy prices taking centre-stage.

Twelve leaders includingEmmanuel Macron, a political centrist; National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen; and far-left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon were vying to take the top post at the start of the 2022 presidential elections. The 53-year-old Ms. Le Pen stepped into the election ring for the third time to be the first woman President of France.

Despite her controversial remarks on immigration and Muslim rights, she has reportedly managed to soften her image to broaden her appeal. Experts say this has happened because of the presence of far-right leader Eric Zemmour whose bid for the presidency is based entirely on the migration issue. He has been portraying himself as the protector of old France, with controversial proposals on immigration and Islam. Notably, he has been convicted three times of inciting racial or religious hatred.

With polls suggesting that the runoff could be close, the President has returned to campaigning after remaining absent for the most part as he shifted his focus to diplomatic efforts over the war in Ukraine.

In his address to supporters last week, Mr. Macron said the runoff campaign will be “decisive for our country and for Europe.” He claimed that Ms. Le Pen would align France with “populists and xenophobes,” and remarked: “That’s not us.”

Ms. Le Pen has, meanwhile, dropped her earlier goal of quitting the European Union and has shifted the spotlight to soaring costs for food, gas and heating due to rising inflation and the repercussions of Western sanctions on Russia. She has also called for measures to soften the blow of rising prices, like slashing taxes on energy bills from 20% to 5.5%. She has promised to put 150-200 euros per month back in people’s pockets.

Also, contrary to her 2017 presidential campaign when she paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin, she has now gone on record to term the Russian invasion of Ukraine “absolutely indefensible”, while adding that Mr. Putin’s behaviour cannot be excused “in any way.”

What are the main talking points?

When the campaign started amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, opinion polls showed a boost for Mr. Macron, but that was followed by a dip in numbers. Here are top issues shaping the 2022 presidential elections:

1. Inflation: According to government data, France saw gains in gross disposable income during Mr. Macron’s presidency. But there has been a the spike in inflation over the last six months. An increase in the cost of living due to rocketing inflation has emerged as the voters’ top concern heading into the elections. Ms. Le Pen has pivoted her campaign to how she would help restore families’ budgets. She has promised to cut taxes on energy and essential goods.

2. Pension reforms: Mr. Macron’s proposed pension changes, which include raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 65, have been widely criticised. While the President said pension reforms are needed to make the system “viable”, the issue prompted major street protests in 2019. Saying that pushing back the retirement age would hurt workers, Ms. Le Pen stated that she will maintain the retirement age at 62 and raise the minimum pension.

3. Immigration: If elected, Ms. Le Pen plans drastic measures — a nationwide referendum — to contain immigration. She plans to restrict social benefits to the French only, and deport foreigners who stay unemployed for over a year and other migrants who entered illegally.

The French President, meanwhile, has stressed the need to strengthen the external borders of the European passport-free area and create a new force to control national borders. He has also vowed to speed up the processing of asylum and residence permit applications and deport those who aren’t eligible.

4. Russia-Ukraine war: The ongoing war in Ukraine has become a key issue in the elections campaigning. Mr. Macron has been seen at the forefront of international talks on supporting Ukraine amid the war and imposing sanctions on Russia. He has also targeted his rival over her ties to Russia. Ms. Le Pen visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.

The National Rally leader has distanced herself from Mr. Putin. Stating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “partially” changed her views about the Russian President, Ms. Le Pen said he was “wrong” and expressed her support for the Ukrainian people and refugees from that country.

Other issues that are likely to be raised when the two leaders take on each other in the second round include the handling of the coronavirus crisis, environment, and health.

What do opinion polls suggest?

Polls suggest that centrist President Emmanuel Macron is the front-runner, but nearly half of respondents say they’re ready to vote for a far-right candidate in the decisive runoff.

Opinion polls also show many are unsure who they will vote for, and turnout could well be much lower than usual.

What is the relevance?

The 2022 French elections will likely have international implications amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as the top two contenders share different views of France's foreign policy and how to deal with Russia, as well as the European Union.

Mr. Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia while Ms. Le Pen has expressed worry about their impact on French living standards. The French President is also a firm supporter of NATO and of close collaboration among members of the European Union. Ms. Len has, meanwhile, reportedly dropped her earlier goals of quitting the EU and abandoning the euro.

This assumes significance since France is the 27-member bloc’s second-largest economy, the only one with a UN Security Council veto, and its sole nuclear power.

(With inputs from agencies)

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