Low-stakes European election in France – but not for Macron and Le Pen

Philippe Wojazer, Pool, Reuters | French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen at the Elysee Palace in Paris on February 6, 2019.

Polling data suggests that the May 26 European election in France will see a battle for first place between Macron’s and Le Pen’s parties, low turnout, a disappointing result for a Yellow Vest list, and a drubbing for France’s fractured left.


A deadline to declare candidacies for the forthcoming European election expired on Friday with President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling La République En Marche (LREM) and Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National (RN) running neck-and-neck ahead of the May 26 vote, according to French polling institutes.

One survey by pollster Elabe, published on April 30 by French media network BFMTV, showed Macron's party coming out on top with 22.5 percent of the vote, with Le Pen's RN a close second at 21.5 percent.

The figures are similar to the results in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, in which Macron led with 24 percent of the vote, while Le Pen trailed at 21.3 percent.

However, another poll, published on May 2 by OpinionWay, put RN on top with 24 percent of the vote and a three-point lead over LREM.

Then called the Front National, Le Pen's party claimed a resounding victory at the last European election in 2014, taking nearly 25 percent of the vote at a time when Macron's party didn't even exist.

Anything less than first place ‘a failure for Le Pen’

“If Macron’s party were to finish second to Le Pen’s now, it would reverse the dynamic of the 2017 presidential election and deal a severe blow to Macron’s ambition to lead a progressive revival of pro-European liberals against national populists in France and across the EU,” said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“Never have we seen European elections with such high stakes for a French president. And having come first in the last European elections of 2014, anything less now would seem like failure for Le Pen,” he continued.

>> Read more: Le Pen's National Rally goes green in bid for European election votes

With regard to the policy terrain on which the campaign is being fought, “two themes stand out: issues relating to sovereignty such as control of migratory flows and the fight against terrorism, on the one hand, and environmental issues on the other”, Bernard Sananès, president of the Elabe Institute, told AFP.

France’s right-wing party, Les Républicains (LR), which has moved in a socially conservative direction since electing Laurent Wauquiez as its leader in 2017, is projected to come third in the Elabe poll, with 15.5 percent of voting intentions – up by 1.5 points from its standing in a March 27 poll, marking the biggest change between the two surveys.

The April 30 poll suggests that those top three parties benefit from committed electoral bases: 79 percent of RN voters, 76 percent of LR voters and 74 percent of LREM supporters said they are sure of their choice.

Left-wing parties ‘more like saplings than trees’

By contrast, supporters of France’s divided and flagging left-wing parties – all polling in single digits – seem much less convinced. Just 63 percent of intended voters for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise (polling at 8 percent) are certain that they will cast their ballots thus, according to the Elabe data.

This figure sinks to 56 percent when one turns to the fallen giant of France’s left, the Socialist Party (PS), and as low as 47 percent for Generation.s, the party founded and led by Benoît Hamon, who took a miserable 6 percent of the vote as the Socialists’ 2017 presidential election candidate. Both parties now risk missing out on the 5 percent threshold to enter the European Parliament.

Europe Écologie Les Verts, an environmentalist platform that tends to do well in European elections, fared better in the Elabe survey, polling at 9 percent, though just over half of its supporters said they were sure of their choice.

This failure of individual left-wing parties to attract committed supporters stems from the “inchoate nature of their programmes; it’s difficult to see what [PS head of list Raphael] Glucksman and Hamon are doing over the long term: their parties seem like groupuscules to be amalgamated in the future – more like saplings than trees,” Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester, postulated in an interview with FRANCE 24.

European elections ‘viewed as second-order’

The apparent lack of enthusiasm amongst intended left-wing voters seems to be part of a broader phenomenon of voter apathy with regard to the European elections in France. Overall, a mere 39 percent of the French electorate are “quite certain to vote” on May 26, the Elabe poll indicated.

For the first time, the heads of the French party lists took part in a televised debate on April 4. However, in a sign of the electorate’s apathy, the debate attracted a mere 1.9 million viewers, 9 percent of the audience – making it only the fourth most-watched programme in that time slot.

At present “there is a general, growing distrust of the political system and the political class – it’s a broad trend, not just in France,” Yves Sintomer, a professor of political science at Paris 8 University, told FRANCE 24.

“Ever since the first European elections held in 1979, parties in France have struggled to get their voters out in force for these elections, [because] these are viewed as second-order elections that lack the importance of presidential or parliamentary elections,” Shields added.

“In an already busy electoral calendar where national and subnational elections are held over two rounds, there is little impetus for many voters to go to the polls yet again for a supranational election that is thought not to really matter so much”, Shields continued.

Yellow Vests polling at just 3 percent

The emergence and persistent presence of the Yellow Vest protest movement in France looks likely to accentuate the abstention rate for the European elections in France, added Elvire Fabry, a European politics specialist at the Institut Jacques Delors think-tank in Paris: “The Yellow Vests are really concentrating the debate on domestic issues, pulling all European, international issues out of the debate,” she told FRANCE 24.

The Yellow Vests’ rise to prominence helps explain why Mélenchon's La France Insoumise – the second biggest party in the National Assembly after LREM, and which many observers see as Macron’s most vigorous parliamentary opponent – languishes in fourth place in the Elabe survey.

“Mélenchon isn’t succeeding in the European election race, even with a young, dynamic head of list, because he didn’t succeed in providing meaningful answers to the Yellow Vests; if he had done so, he could really have capitalised on the success on their movement,” Fabry continued.

But despite such “success” in setting the terms of France’s political debate, the Yellow Vests movement, which announced its first European elections list this week, will probably not garner more than 3 percent of the vote, according to the Elabe survey.

“The Yellow Vests are polling so low because it’s difficult to carry their momentum into organised politics, and every time some of its members try to do so there’s a push back – a sense that people are trying to politicise something that’s apolitical,” Smith said.

Meanwhile the Yellow Vests’ bête noir, France’s self-declared “Jupiterian” president, could reap ample rewards from LREM edging RN at the top of the polls on May 26, Smith posited: “If his party does well, it will act as a rally for the Macron project, creating an idea of a 'second act' to his presidential term that puts the Yellow Vest crisis firmly in the past”.

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