All Eyes on France for Another Pivotal Presidential Election

Only a few days (four as of this writing) stand between France and another potential turning point in its history, as well as a potentially massive shift in the political environment of the world. On April 24, French men and women will head to the polls for the second round of their presidential election, where they will pick between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen.

The French presidential election system functions with two successive elections: first, an open-jungle ‘primary’ of sorts, in which all candidates are on the ballot. That happened on April 4, with Macron winning 27.6% of the vote, and Le Pen garnering 23.0%. With these figures, Macron and Le Pen were the top two  candidates, meaning they advanced to the second round, a ‘runoff.’ 

This isn’t the first time the two have squared off in the final round—just five years ago, Macron and Le Pen faced one another in the 2017 presidential election, resulting in a 32-point landslide in favor of Macron. 

But things are significantly different now. Macron, once an international darling, has seen his reputation sour among many due to various missteps during his first term. Earlier this year, he earned rebukes from politicians across the spectrum for saying outright that he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated. His imposition of a carbon tax sparked the widespread Yellow Vests movement, which has engendered longstanding resentment against him. He experienced an initial uptick in approval for his handling of the Ukrainian war, but that polling bounce has since receded to a new low.

Though Macron has been bogged down by his own scandals, Le Pen is hardly a pristine paragon of popularity herself. While she did expel her father Jean-Marie from her political party (The National Rally), which he helped found and led for many years, her connection to him is an odious one, given some of his comments (most notably his dismissal of the Holocaust as a ‘detail’ of history). She also has a history of staunch anti-immigrant rhetoric, which she has tried to soften as of late, but may earn her disapproval in the polling booth.

A more recent scandal may also hinder the long-embattled Le Pen. On April 20, the European Union’s fraud agency accused Le Pen of misusing public funds while serving in the European Parliament. Such a late announcement in the race could threaten to doom her bid for the presidency, though it is unclear what effect the accusation will have.

Aside from determining the course of the country for themselves on the 24th, French men and women will be making a choice that will have far-reaching impacts on the rest of the world. First, in immediate terms, the election of Le Pen could cause a significant shift in French, and subsequently European, policy toward Russia in the midst of its invasion of Ukraine. In an April 20 debate, Macron attacked Le Pen on her ties to the Kremlin via a Czech-Russian loan to The National Rally, saying, “You [Le Pen] depend on Russia and you depend on Mr. Putin.” Macron also noted during the debate that Le Pen refused to condemn Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea at the time.

Le Pen has at the very least suggested a defrosting of currently icy French relations with Russia, having said in the past that Ukraine belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence and that, if elected, she would stop the French transfer of weapons to Russia. Such positions, among others, have caused significant anxiety for EU member states, who fear that Le Pen’s election would result in a financially and ideologically weakened Union. Le Pen’s current platform makes no mention of the EU, but she has criticized the organization in the past, in addition to proposing a referendum on membership in the lead-up to the 2017 presidential election. Were the EU to be rattled by a Le Pen victory, it may allow Russia to gain an upper hand in Ukraine.

Aside from its potential impacts on the Russo-Ukrainian war, the French presidential election may also strongly affect the international political environment. Macron’s initial 2017 victory was seen as something of a repudiation of the far-right internationally, which had r around that time seen two big victories in the elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as President of the United States and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, respectively. If Le Pen were to win this time, the far-right may feel emboldened and receive a boost across the world, which could have widespread impacts on multiple important upcoming elections, including the Philippine presidential and general elections, the Brazilian general elections, the Slovenian general elections, the Austrian presidential election, and the United States general elections—all of which are slated to happen later this year.

Domestically, the general expectation for the United States’ upcoming elections is that the far-right (in this case, the Republican Party) will see a wave of victories, as is common for the midterm election of an opposite-party president—particularly when the incumbent is as unpopular as Joe Biden currently is. A victory for the French right would almost certainly strengthen such perceptions and may exacerbate the political damage for Democrats.

Thus, when French voters head to the polls once more on Sunday, April 24, they will be deciding on far more than their own leader for the next five years. Politically savvy eyes, from Paris to Washington D.C., from Marseilles to Moscow, from Lyon to London, will be trained on the exit polls in the waning hours of the French night.