Presidential elections: France votes in times of exception | International
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First were the yellow vests. Then the pandemic. Now, Vladimir Putin’s war. Emmanuel Macron has governed France for five years through crises and social convulsions, a state of political exception that, inevitably, has ended up marking the presidential elections on April 10 and 24. There has been almost no campaign, and few massive rallies like the one President Macron held in Paris on Saturday. No topic of debate arouses passions, nor any candidate, and there is not today in France, as before the 2017 elections, an air of change of era. Ukraine suffocates the campaign. anesthesia. In his daily column in the newspaper Les Echosthe editorialist Céline Cornudet summarizes: “The air is depoliticized”.
It is not the first anomalous campaign in recent times. They were those of the last two elections, held with the pandemic: the municipal elections of 2020 and the regional elections of 2021. And before that, the French voted during the revolt of the yellow vests. And the Islamist attacks. And the financial crisis.
“Before we lived in a relatively calm democracy,” Brice Teinturier, delegate general director of the Ipsos demoscopic institute in France, tells EL PAÍS. “Every five years, we met again in the great electoral scene to confront projects, regulate conflicts. And the people decided. But now we are in a world of increasingly brutal and sudden crises that take us away from the democratic ritual of a big vote every five years.
First consequence: demobilization. This flat campaign, as has already happened with the municipal and regional ones, motivates the French less than usual and could lead to an abstention rate close to 30% (in 2017 it was 22%).
Second consequence of times of war and pandemic: the fear of change, the demand for protection.
“The first thing the French expect from a President of the Republic is the ability to understand their problems and respond to them. The second is the ability to face serious crises”, says Teinturier. “Undeniably, this gives Emmanuel Macron an advantage, because the French consider his ability to manage crises to be superior to others. What will ultimately be decisive will be the protection of the French and the seriousness of the candidate”.
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The third consequence of the atypical context of the presidential elections: the succession of crises sometimes expresses —in the case of the yellow vests— or hides —as happens in this apparently calm campaign— the constellation of malaise that runs through French society.
There is a territorial malaise. That of the rural country, that of small and medium-sized cities far from economic hubs and metropolises connected to globalization. It is the France of the yellow veststhe French who, in reaction to a rise in fuel prices, occupied tolls and roundabouts at the end of 2018 and put Macron on the ropes.
There is also an identity malaise. That of the young children or grandchildren of immigrants who feel discriminated against and find themselves trapped in the banlieues, the suburban neighborhoods where, according to Macron, “the republican promise has been broken”, that is, the French meritocratic dream. Added to this discomfort is another that has to do with identity: that of the French who feel in a situation of cultural insecurity in the face of immigration and accelerated social changes. Before them, candidates like the ultra Éric Zemmour stir up conspiracy theories such as the great replacement of the native European population by that of Arab and African origin.
The third discomfort is economic. Macron has reduced unemployment, purchasing power has increased during the five-year period and, after the confinements of the pandemic, the economy returned to growth at a rate unusual in recent decades. But the rise in prices, which already started before the invasion of Ukraine, has intensified. The Government has disbursed 30,000 million euros since the autumn to mitigate it, but purchasing power fell 1.4% in the first quarter and inflation in March, compared to the same month in 2021, was 4.5%, the highest level since the eighties.
Today, purchasing power is the primary concern of voters, and the extreme candidates, Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left, have taken advantage of it.
the weekly Le Canard Enchainé, with good sources in Macron’s entourage, revealed this week that, in a meeting at the Elysee, a minister offered this diagnosis: “People are getting used to images of war. There is a risk that Ukraine will no longer be an issue of compassion, but an issue of purchasing power, with the rise in energy prices and perhaps food.”
According to the latest Ipsos poll, Macron’s vote expectation in the first round is 26.5%, followed by Le Pen, with 20%, and Mélenchon, with 16%. All institutes coincide, with slight variations.
The presidential ones are a matter of three. On the one hand, the broad center of Macron, which includes from former socialist voters to voters of the moderate right, and who defends European integration, NATO and liberal democracy. He is the system’s candidate. On the other, an extreme right and a populist left that, from opposing ideological positions, challenge the European Union in its current form, advocate France leaving NATO or an equidistance between blocs, and express their discomfort with Macron, who is a discomfort, too, with the system.
Teinturier, from Ipsos, considers that in the nebula of these elections the candidates with “vision” have ended up standing out. “Marine Le Pen has a vision,” he says. “We already see what kind of society she proposes: authority, rejection of immigration, protection. We also see Mélenchon’s model: his grail is a society in which the goal would be harmony between people, a more humane society. And Macron has a global vision, although more difficult to define: an alloy between an open society, a society of trust, responsibility and freedom.
Macron is still the favourite. The exceptional nature of the moment may reinforce the idea that, in the midst of a crisis, it is better not to change the president. But the minor tone of the campaign, the apparent lack of interest make many experts distrust. “It is in moments of political indifference”, warns Cornudet, of Les Echos“when democratic accidents can occur”.
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