David Natroshvili, Contributor, International Security and Defence Studies, Caucasus University
The second round of the presidential elections in France will be held on April 24, 2022 in which the current president, Emmanuel Macron, and the leader of the National Rally radical right-wing party, Marine Le Pen, will face each other. A similar contest already occurred in 2017 and it ended with Macron’s victory. However, the political context and the electoral support of the 2022 elections differ from that of 2017; therefore, the reoccurrence of the 2017 results is not guaranteed.
Why this is important
Historically, the presidential elections in the Fifth Republic have never been of local significance. Given France’s position in the international system, the figure of the president has always been an important factor for Europe’s political future and transatlantic relations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made this reality even more tangible and has significantly increased the importance of the 2022 presidential election. Undoubtedly, the foreign policy course of the future president of France will have an important impact on the positioning of the Western camp in this crisis while in combination with other factors (France’s place in the EU and NATO), it will also influence the security architecture of the European continent.
The effect of war
Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine initiated on February 24 brought about fundamental changes in the pre-election campaign of France. Prior to the Russian invasion, the election agenda in France was entirely shaped by topics proposed by populist leaders such as immigration, Islam, crime, internal security, civil strife, etc. The invasion changed the situation and made foreign policy and international security a priority in the first round. On this ground, voters quickly regrouped around politicians who presented themselves better than others in the face of the international crisis. First of all, it concerns Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen who were considered the main rivals on the radical right-wing spectrum and enjoyed equal support before the war. Le Pen was quick to acknowledge the change in public sentiments and although she had hitherto been known for her rather sharp pro-Russian statements, she openly called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine an aggression and supported the unconditional admission of Ukrainian refugees to France. Unlike Le Pen, Eric Zemmour went on to argue that the ongoing war in Ukraine served as a distraction aimed to divert the attention of the French electorate from fundamental problems. He argued that these fundamental problems emanate not from the east but from the south. In doing so, he again sought to draw public attention to the issues that were a strong point of his election program. However, Zemmour’s attempt was unsuccessful and his rating dropped rapidly. Le Pen’s rating, however, rose with a similar pace, presumably, precisely at the expense of Zemmour’s original voters. The Russian war against Ukraine was crucial in the confrontation between the two radical right-wing leaders – it paved the way for Marine Le Pen to the second round of the presidential election.
The first round and its impact on the pre-election environment
The results of the first round significantly changed the domestic political landscape of France and offered us a new distribution of forces whereby, unlike in 2017, the unconditional defeat of the leader of the radical right wing is no longer obvious. The first noticeable change is the strengthening of ultra-right political ideas and views in French political life. Four radical right-wing candidates ran in the election, garnering a combined 35.4% of the total vote in the first round which is a historic result (in 2017, that support was 27.2%). The second characteristic is the third place (22%) of the leader of the radical left-wing, Jean-Luc Melenchon. It is noteworthy that with their views on foreign policy issues, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s voters stand very close to the radical right wing together creating the so-called “Sovereignist” camp. The third change concerns the traditional political parties whose role in French political life is diminishing, providing opening for the radical right and the radical left. The fourth change is manifested in the significant weakening of the so-called National Barrier which has twice worked successfully to the detriment of the far-right leaders in the history of the presidential election: in 2002 in the confrontation between Jacques Chirac and Le Pen Senior and in 2017 in the confrontation between Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen Junior. Finally, the fifth characteristic of the election is that the decisive role in the confrontation between the right-wing leaders belongs to the radical left-wing voters which is a difficult challenge for the politicians situated on the right-wing spectrum.
Where will the votes of the defeated candidates go?
One section of the defeated candidates publicly stated their position regarding the second round of the elections right after the first round. Eric Zemmour backed Marin Le Pen while Valerie Pecresse, Hidalgo and Yannick Jadot backed Emmanuel Macron. Jean-Luc Melenchon took a stand against Marine Le Pen but, at the same time, he did not appeal to his supporters to vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round.
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen properly appreciate the complex nature of the pre-election environment and fight for every voter. This has already become visible in their discourse. Since the first round, it has partially shifted to the left, which is understandable, as the fate of the election is now being decided by the many left-wing Melenchon voters. However, the change in discourse is also accompanied by a challenge which is to retain their own voters and attract an additional electorate with right-wing views.
What will happen if Marine Le Pen wins?
The question on everyone’s mind is: What will happen if Marine Le Pen wins? Le Pen has long been known for her ambitious plans, both domestically and abroad. Her main targets in domestic politics are immigration, radical Islam and internal security issues. In the foreign affairs, arena, Le Pen plans to strengthen France’s sovereignty first of all which she believes is being curtailed by pressure from international institutions. This implies a revision of France’s positions within NATO and the EU. Le Pen says that she has no plans to take France out of those organizations but she will suspend France’s participation in NATO joint military operations and create an organization counterweight to the European Union – the unity of European nations. According to her, this organization, “unlike the EU, which has federalist aspirations, will help strengthen the freedom and sovereignty of historically established European nations.” As for her posture towards Russia, we must assume that despite statements made in the wake of the ongoing war against Ukraine, it has not changed and remains in its original position which includes partnership with Putin’s Russia, the international recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia, Ukraine’s neutral status and stopping NATO’s eastward expansion.
And if Macron wins…
France and Europe should not expect radical changes if Macron wins. Macron is not going to revise France’s positions in international relations. He will seek to maintain its role as a mediator in the Russian war against Ukraine and pursue a policy of resolving the crisis through diplomatic means. At the same time, Macron’s goal will be to ensure Europe’s energy independence and form a common defense system with EU member states. He will also maintain the transatlantic partnership and help strengthen it as he believes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has once again underscored the need for a stronger NATO in Europe.
Impact of the election results on Georgia
Marine Le Pen’s victory, which will weaken NATO and the European Union and facilitate the recognition of Russia’s interests over the post-Soviet space (neutrality of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea), will significantly alter Georgia’s national security environment and pose new challenges.
And if Macron wins, the status quo in the security environment will be maintained and the French presidential election will not be an additional factor for its deterioration or improvement.