PARIS—Posters have gone up across France for Sunday’s presidential election, a 12-way contest that pits the centrist incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, against a range of challengers of varying degrees of seriousness. Some hardly get recognized in the street; others are fixtures of protest marches and television specials; only one, the anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen, appears capable of running a close race against the president in the runoff on April 24.
This two-round system, a so-called “jungle” primary followed by a head-to-head matchup, has been a feature of French politics since the 1960s. Historically, this has given voters the freedom to vote with their hearts in the first round, because the second round has usually boiled down to a battle between the two establishment parties, Socialists versus Republicans. The far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, upset that dynamic in 2002; the fresh-faced former finance minister Macron, who started his own party (La République En Marche!) in 2016, has ended it.
Instead, in a crowded field where Macron seems to have locked down a spot in the runoff, but second place might still be up for grabs, voters, pundits, and politicians have been riveted by the polls and are strategizing about the “vote utile”—the useful vote. Things have come to the point where some of the president’s own supporters might vote against him in the first round, in the hopes of delivering a more favorable matchup in the second. “It’s so beautiful when a democracy resembles Koh-Lanta,” the comedian Alex Vizorek said this week, referring to the French version of Survivor.
“The vote utile—that’s me,” Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Parisian region running as the mainstream right-wing candidate, offered last week. Pécresse has struggled to distinguish her platform from the president’s. Instead, she has accused him of copying her ideas, such as investing in nuclear power, raising the retirement age from 62 to 65, and reforming the welfare system. The less doctrinaire members of her party have flocked to the president’s coalition; even the last Republican president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is suspected of supporting Macron. Meanwhile right-wingers more fixated on immigration, public safety, and culture war issues have thrown their support behind the far-right candidates—Marine Le Pen, and, to her right, the grotesque polemicist Eric Zemmour.
Pécresse’s pitch, basically, is that what has failed to set her apart in the primary will become an asset in the runoff—that she’s more likely to triumph over the president than her toxic right-wing rivals. It was a position that made more sense a month ago, when she was hovering around second place in the polls. Since then she has switched places with Le Pen, who is now favored to advance to the second round—and is creeping closer and closer to Macron in head-to-head polling.
For a quarter-century, the French political establishment has considered the prospect of a President Le Pen unthinkable. Le Pen père was tainted by, among other things, his support for the Vichy regime and the record of the French military in its colonial wars. But his daughter Marine, now in her third presidential contest, has led a 20-year campaign to “de-demonize” the National Rally party her father founded in 1972, jettisoning some of its extreme positions (like exiting the European Union) and extreme members (like her dad). It’s working. She still wants to systematically expel France’s undocumented immigrants, end the right to birthright citizenship, and give French nationals priority in hiring, housing, and benefits, but she has run most of this campaign as an economic populist. Her party performs best in the de-industrialized regions of Northern France that were once left-wing strongholds.
She’s gotten help from the center, where Macron’s conservative cabinet members have parroted her voters’ anxiety about the influence of Islam, helping to legitimize her views, and from the right, where the ex-journalist Eric Zemmour’s extraordinarily nasty campaign—he’d like to require children born in France to have French names—has served to make her own look moderate.
On the left, meanwhile, the prospect of a second Macron–Le Pen runoff is filling voters with dread. The question of the vote utile is front of mind this week, because the left has four candidates dividing up the first-round vote, and only one of them—Jean-Luc Mélenchon—appears capable of making it to the runoff. And so progressive voters are trying to make up their minds: Is a vote for Mélenchon the only way to keep Le Pen from the runoff? “The vote utile on the left is for Mélenchon,” the former socialist candidate Ségolène Royal said in February.
Mélenchon, who is polling a few points behind Le Pen in third place, is a loose analog to Bernie Sanders—a veteran politician who has been in and out of the Socialist Party. At the moment, he’s out: He founded his own party, La France Insoumise, often translated as “unbowed,” and came within a hair of making the runoff in 2017. He was greeted with selfies and cheers when he marched with striking teachers in January, and he has called on the French to summon their better nature in welcoming the country’s immigrants. Mélenchon says he’s the unity candidate on the left: “If you really intend to build a dam in the second round [to stop Le Pen],” he said last week, “I have a more interesting proposition for you: Build the dam in the first round by voting for us!”
Still, not all the gauche likes him or trusts him, especially when it comes to stopping the extreme right. After Mélenchon lost the first round in 2017, he declined to rally behind Macron in the runoff and is similarly noncommittal about the “Republican front” to stop Le Pen this time around. Not all French leftists agree with his platform, either, which includes price controls, a new constitution, and an exit from NATO. “At some point you need a président utile, not simply a vote utile,” countered the Socialist ex-president François Hollande last month.
“A vote utile for whom?” an older Socialist voter told me on Sunday. “For Putin?” I found her outside the rally for Anne Hidalgo, who occupies the mirror position of Pécresse on the left: The standard-bearer of the French political establishment, heading for near-certain defeat. Hidalgo is the mayor of Paris, best-known abroad for her quest to rid the city of cars. Like Pécresse, she is trying to carve out space between Macron and the fringe. Fortunately for her, there’s more space for that on the left, after Macron lurched right during his term. Unfortunately for her, there are also more candidates on this side of things—Hidalgo is contending not just with Mélenchon but with a green party candidate, Yannick Jadot; a communist, Fabien Roussel; and a couple of smaller fish as well. It’s never a good sign when you feel obliged to address your audience’s suspicion that voting for you might be a waste of time, but that’s how bad the polls have been for the mayor. “Macron’s a right-winger; Mélenchon is a dead end,” she told a theater full of supporters, dismantling each of their records. “Vote with your heart.”
The problems for the once-proud Socialist Party are numerous. First, its last president, François Hollande, disappointed voters with a disastrous term, marked by the terrorist attacks of 2015 at the Charlie Hebdo office and the Bataclan Theater. In a moment of apt symbolism, the party attempted to save some cash by selling off its Parisian HQ and moving to the suburbs.
Second, the French left has lately seemed incapable of reframing the national debate to be about something—anything!—besides immigration and Islam. As the reporter James McCauley wrote recently, “In a moment of rising anxiety about national identity, especially in the aftermath of the Islamist terror attacks, the left simply has no vision. It merely seems to respond to grievances from the right, allowing its opponents to dictate the terms of a discussion that it might take in a different direction. This is perhaps the French left’s greatest failure: its failure, and even its fear, of imagination.”
The biggest issue for the Socialists, however, is simply the reluctance of likeminded voters to coalesce around them. It’s an obstacle that everyone saw coming a mile away, which is why leftists organized an interparty primary in January, in the hopes that most of their choices could be convinced to drop out. But one by one, the candidates decided that they would not quit, and the primary was won by yet another left-wing politician, Christine Taubira, whose impeccable credentials were tempered by the fact that she had been accused of playing spoiler in one presidential election already, in 2002. In the end, she did not get organized in time to qualify for the ballot for this week’s contest. While the “working-class primary” didn’t get anyone to quit, at least it didn’t add another name into the mix.
Finally, there is Emmanuel Macron, who has chosen to participate in the campaign with the urgency and enthusiasm of a man doing his taxes. His official candidacy has been underway for less than a month. He has refused to debate the other candidates. He has held all of one rally, a polished, spectacular affair at which he (and he alone) spoke for more than two hours to a crowd of 25,000. His team seems to have calculated that his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his role as Europe’s chief wartime diplomat would serve as a campaign of its own. “When you’re up 6–1, 6–2 after the first two sets, you’re not going to risk a heart attack on the third,” one of his advisers told the Parisien newspaper recently.
His record is almost certainly enough to see him through to the second round. France’s unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, its COVID-19 vaccination rates are among the highest in Europe, and the specter of Islamist terrorism has mercifully receded. He is leading the first-round polls, with a projected 25–30 percent of the vote.
But the line between looking presidential and looking aloof is thin. His lead in the projected runoff against Le Pen has evaporated from 16 points to 3 in the last month. The critical refrain is that Macron has served as a president of the rich, a precocious megalomaniac whose expressions of contempt for the unvaccinated and the unemployed are still ringing in voters’ ears. A late-breaking scandal that involves his government spending tens of millions of euros on McKinsey consulting contracts hasn’t helped.
To win, Macron will need the left-wing “beavers” to build that dam again. It’s not going to be as easy as it was five years ago. Polls show a good chunk of Mélenchon voters would defect to Le Pen, for example. Meanwhile, abstentions for the first round are projected to near 30 percent, a record in a country where 8 in 10 adults typically vote for president.
Last year, the left-wing newspaper Libération called for testimonials from the voters who had built up the “Republican front” in 2002 and in 2017, but would not do it again. The paper received hundreds of letters. They were tired of voting for something they didn’t believe in, tired of being taken for granted, and tired of Macron’s entreaties to the xenophobic right. They say Macron has ignored them for five years. If the polls are right, he’ll have two weeks to win them over.