French presidential election turns on whether leftist voters go right




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In the first round of the French presidential elections, far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon earned more than 7 million votes, leaving him just a percentage point short of advancing to the runoff on April 24.

Now, as France decides whether incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen should take up the presidency for the next five years, what Mélenchon voters choose to do could be basic.

Why We Wrote This

Voters on the left see the French presidential election as an unappealing choice between a center-right president and a far-right populist. But their vote will have an outsized impact on the nation’s priorities in the next 5 years.

Mr. Mélenchon’s success at the surveys could be just a permanent trend – 50% of those who voted for him in the first round did so tactically, as a way to keep Ms. Le Pen out of the second round, according to the German Marshall Fund.

National surveys show that 41% of Mélenchon supporters intend to vote for Mr. Macron in the second round, compared to 21% for Ms. Le Pen. But with 33% saying they keep undecided, there is a meaningful margin of error.

“Every other day I go between voting null and voting for Macron, I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” says Clara Seiller from the east of Paris, a Mélenchon bastion. “I’ll probably end up voting Macron to stop Le Pen from winning, but with some of the things Macron has done lately, sometimes I’m not sure if he’s any better than her.” 

La Courneuve, France

Kamal Ali groups a plastic bag of grape tomatoes in the air as he stops in a corner cafe after shopping at the nearby weekly market. “I just paid four euros for five tomatoes! They cost already more in the grocery store,” he complains.

“All day long we hear about how immigration is ruining France,” says the public service worker, as merchants bustle outside, hollering prices on fruit, vegetables, and clothing. “But what about how expensive daily life is? Either France is going to change, or it’s going to explode.”

Mr. Ali is part of the 63% of La Courneuve residents who voted for far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential elections, held on April 10. This Paris suburb, one of the poorest in the Ile-de-France vicinity, has become an unexpected stronghold of sustain for Mr. Mélenchon, who scored 22% nationally – just about a percentage point short of the second round.  

Why We Wrote This

Voters on the left see the French presidential election as an unappealing choice between a center-right president and a far-right populist. But their vote will have an outsized impact on the nation’s priorities in the next 5 years.

Just as he did in cities like Strasbourg and Marseille, Mr. Mélenchon overwhelmingly took the popular vote here by focusing on the concerns of ordinary French people: reduced purchasing strength, rising fuel prices, and a diminishing social safety net. 

Incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen will have to attract the more than 7 million Mélenchon voters ahead of the second round of the presidential election this weekend. How they vote will be a deciding factor in who wins. 

The election is seeing new political alignments. Just as the traditional left-wing Socialist party has withered, Mr. Macron has swung to the right. Meanwhile, Ms. Le Pen has softened her party’s image and brought it slightly more toward the center. The identity crisis within the French left has produced an electorate more fractured than ever and put left-leaning voters in a bind as to how they will vote on Sunday. 

“Left-wing parties have become out of touch with their electorate,” says Vincent Tournier, a political scientist at Sciences Po Grenoble. “The left has had trouble integrating certain issues like security and laïcité [secularism]. They’ve abandoned their economic form, which is what used to set them apart. … Mélenchon was able to collect those traditional left-wing voters who don’t see themselves anywhere anymore.” 

A very different playing field

The Socialists have been in decline since 2017 and the end of François Hollande’s unpopular presidency. At the same time, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Les Républicains party (formerly Union for a Popular Movement) has been racked with controversy since he and 2017 presidential candidate François Fillon were embroiled in corruption scandals. 

The decline of the two traditional parties has clouded the lines for voters of where they fit within France’s new political scenery. Now Ms. Le Pen’s and Mr. Mélenchon’s parties – once seen as border – have become realistic options for mainstream voters.  

“The traditional parties have failed to understand the evolutions of society,” says Erwan Lestrohan, a political scientist at the Odoxa polling institute. “drastic parties on both the right and the left have been able to better define what they have to offer, which traditional parties are not doing enough. Either we’re in a transitional phase politically, or a moment of total reconstruction.”

It remains unclear whether Mr. Mélenchon’s success at the surveys is indicative of a meaningful shift to the far left or a permanent trend – 50% of those who voted for him in the first round did so tactically, according to the German Marshall Fund, as a way to keep Ms. Le Pen out of the second round. Meanwhile, a separate poll found that 32% of voters overall say they put in a tactical vote this year.

That has meant that the typical predictors that indicate how the French will vote no longer apply. It’s especially true in France’s big cities, where Mr. Mélenchon jumped by 10 points compared to 2017 and won out over Mr. Macron.

“Every other day I go between voting null and voting for Macron, I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” says Clara Seiller from the east of Paris, a Mélenchon bastion. “I’ll probably end up voting Macron to stop Le Pen from winning, but with some of the things Macron has done lately, sometimes I’m not sure if he’s any better than her.” 

National surveys show that 41% of Mélenchon supporters intend to vote for Mr. Macron in the second round, compared to 21% for Ms. Le Pen. But with 33% saying they keep undecided, there is a meaningful margin of error. A separate poll by Mr. Mélenchon’s campaign indicated that over half of his supporters planned to vote null – leaving their ballot blank deliberately – or abstain altogether, though the poll omitted an option to vote for Ms. Le Pen.

To encourage turnout, nonprofits are working overtime to encourage people to head to the surveys, particularly young people – 30% of those under 35 stayed home in the first round. That was evidenced by the hundreds of students who occupied the Sorbonne University last week protesting the “fake choice” between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen. Protesters say neither candidate can offer social protections and solutions to the ecosystem. 

“Young people are more than ever getting involved in causes that they feel passionate about. But they haven’t seen politicians integrate those causes into their campaigns, so they lose faith in the system,” says Flore Blondel-Goupil, co-president of the voting advocacy nonprofit A Voté. “We’re trying to show them that by voting, they’re showing their commitment.”

Lionel Pedraza/Hans Lucas/Reuters

Young voters cheer for Marine Le Pen in Perpignan on April 7 in her last party event before the first round of the 2022 French presidential elections. While Ms. Le Pen managed to eke out a second-place finish, she will have to allurement to leftist voters to overtake incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the runoff.

shared ground between far-left and far-right?

The winning candidate will have an uphill climb to convince voters to have faith in politics. The public feels increasingly left behind by its leaders – Ipsos research from this year shows that 62% of French people think their politicians are corrupt and 69% believe the political system roles poorly.

That may help Ms. Le Pen, who despite taking over from her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has always cast herself as a political outsider. Some left-wing voters may view Ms. Le Pen as an antidote to what they see as crushing reforms and conservative laws that Mr. Macron has passed in office.  

already though Mr. Mélenchon said after losing the first round that “not one vote should go to the far-right,” there are points where he and Ms. Le Pen converge. Both have campaigned on increasing purchasing strength and French protectionism; both disagree with raising the retirement age, which Mr. Macron is proposing.  

Ms. Le Pen has also tried to change her party’s image, breaking with her father and renaming it National Rally in 2018. Though once in favor of “Frexit,” she’s since performed a volte-confront on France leaving the EU and has made climate issues part of her program to allurement to liberal voters.  

nevertheless, there remains a strong anti-fascist tradition in France. On April 16, 22,000 people protested across the country against the far right.  

surveys favor a win for Mr. Macron on Sunday. If he does, he’ll have to defend reforms that led to months of social unrest and answer to left-wing critics who say he is out of touch with their concerns.  

Beyond wooing liberal voters, whoever nabs the presidency must find a way to allurement to them post-election in order to govern effectively.  

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“There isn’t one candidate who can represent the left. We had three political blocks who scored almost equally after the first round, but they don’t have the same priorities, values, or chief beliefs,” says Thomas Guénolé, a political scientist of left-wing politics. “Those who stay home on voting day feel like [choosing between] Macron and Le Pen is like choosing between the plague or cholera. Some of those people will vote Le Pen just to blow up the system.”

Editor’s observe: The original version misstated the findings of a poll about tactical voting among the French public.

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