This time last year, the French presidential election was expected to be a fierce race. Opinion polls have suggested far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is closing in on Emmanuel Macron, threatening his bid for a second term. One even suggested she might win the first-round vote.
When far-right hawk Eric Zemmour joined the fray – but before he declared his candidacy – political discourse was dominated for several weeks by his anti-immigration and anti-Islam agenda.
Today, however, all those months of political noise and fury have come to nothing. Less than a month from the election, Macron now has a 12-point lead over Le Pen, his closest rival. It is the biggest first-round lead since Francois Mitterrand faced Jacques Chirac in 1988, making Macron’s re-election all but a foregone conclusion.
In France, it is called the Falklands effect or ‘the Falklands effect’: Just as Margaret Thatcher’s 1982 South Atlantic conflict led to her dramatic upturn in the polls and subsequent re-election, Macron’s popularity soared, polls show , thanks to his highly publicized involvement as Europe’s go-between in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
For Macron’s rivals, the fortnight since Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine has been a particular challenge: unable to criticize the president’s actions on Ukraine for fear of appearing unpatriotic or unsympathetic, and faced with wall-to-wall media coverage of the conflict, they struggled to bring the electoral agenda back to national issues.
The world describes this presidential race as a “ghost campaign” – over before it even started. “Already eclipsed by the [Covid] health crisis, it seems to have been completely crushed by the war in Ukraine and its repercussions in Europe,” writes political journalist Solenn de Royer. “While the news revolves around what is happening in the East and the exchanges between Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskiy or Vladimir Poutine, the other candidates are relegated to the background and have great difficulty in advancing their agendas.”
French presidential elections are notoriously unpredictable – the last two have seen the collapse of supposedly unbeatable candidates. But for months polls have suggested that the likeliest outcome of the April 10 vote will see far-right National Rally candidate Le Pen take on Macron in the second round, with Macron winning – a repeat of the 2017 election, but by a narrower margin.
Macron’s attempts to broker peace, including a trip to Moscow, ahead of Putin sending tanks, may have failed, and Le Pen’s campaign leaflets may picture him meet the Russian president, but none saw their position damaged. The challenges thrown at Le Pen by Zemmour and Valérie Pécresse, of the dominant right opposition Les Républicains, and of the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon fall into the water.
A recent Elabe poll suggested that Macron’s popularity rose 8.5 points to 33.5% in one week. The latest polls put Macron at least 12 points ahead of Le Pen, with Mélenchon, Zemmour and Pécresse behind in that order. Ukraine is now the second concern of the French questioned by the pollster Ipsos; the first is their purchasing power, with the environment in third place.
“To be fair, the probability was that Emmanuel Macron would be re-elected even before the war in Ukraine… Now it will be even easier because he is a wartime president,” said Thomas Guénolé, an analyst. French politician. Observer.
“You can describe this as the Falklands syndrome, especially since there is no serious chance that France will be in direct confrontation with Russia, so there is no risk that France will be humiliated or beaten.”
It has now been 10 days since Macron announced his candidacy in a letter to the French, and he hasn’t even unveiled his electoral manifesto. So far, the only concrete proposal has been to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65.
Laurent Jacobelli, Le Pen’s campaign spokesman, admitted that the war in Ukraine had made the campaign a challenge. “Obviously our role in an international crisis is not to undermine the role of the French president in negotiations and diplomacy,” he said. “But it’s not normal for the president to make it the only subject and eclipse the rest.”
However, he added that the war had exposed domestic issues that Le Pen had long campaigned on.
“Now it is up to us to show that the globalization of everything – energy, business, food production – and the way in which conflicts undermine French sovereignty with our dependence on NATO, are more important than ever. The purchasing power of citizens, for example, especially when they fill up their cars, is always at the heart of the campaign and at the heart of voters’ concerns.
Jacobelli said the clocks will “return to zero” once the initial boost caused by the conflict subsides. “As he did in 2017, Emmanuel Macron will try to sell this election on his personality, but after the Covid, the vests yellow and his attempts to dissolve France within the European Union, perhaps his personality will not be enough.
Francoise Pams, a member of Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo’s campaign team, said the campaign had been “completely taken over” by the situation in Ukraine. “It is understandable that Emmanuel Macron ‘benefits’ from the war in the sense that it gives him, as the military leader of the country, a lot of weight,” she said. “But while he’s not campaigning, the rest of his government is campaigning in his name, which is wrong.
“All we can do in this election is keep trying to bring the discussion back to the issues facing the French people and their main concern, which is their purchasing power. Fuel and energy costs are already rising, and it will only get worse.
Last Thursday and Friday, Macron made headlines again after hosting an emergency summit on Ukraine in Versailles – where the treaty that ended World War I and established the League of Nations was signed. – attended by the heads of 27 EU Member States.
Guénolé thinks the most sensible approach now would be to postpone the election to avoid a “short circuit of democracy”, and says a victory under such circumstances will do Macron a disservice.
“We have seen this in previous elections when a candidate won almost by default. If Macron wins under these conditions, it will not be five years of democratic government, but five years of disastrous political tension,” Guénolé said.
The world‘s de Royer agreed, adding: “If this context serves the incumbent president, it further weakens a depleted democracy.”
In the National Rally camp, on the other hand, the atmosphere remains optimistic. “Nothing is certain,” said Ludwig Knoepffler, a graduate of King’s College London and Le Pen’s international media adviser. “Nothing is written in advance and we continue.”