In Brief

Macron vs. Le Pen: What’s at Stake in the French Election?

Even if French President Emmanuel Macron is able to fend off the challenge from his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, he could struggle to form an effective government.

How does this race differ from when French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen last faced off in 2017?

The biggest difference is that Macron is now running as the incumbent. He is no longer the fresh face who took the tired political establishment by storm and promised to govern from the “radical center.” On the left, voters see him as the “president of the rich,” while critics on the right lament that his economic reforms have not gone far enough and that he could have been tougher on immigration. This follows a trend of French ambivalence: a sitting president has not been reelected since Jacques Chirac easily beat Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002.

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Le Pen, meanwhile, has been able to significantly soften her extreme-right image over the past five years, focusing more on bread-and-butter issues such as the cost of living and an earlier retirement age. And thanks to the rise of the even-more radical Eric Zemmour, Le Pen became a more acceptable choice for many traditional right-wing voters and disaffected left-wing voters.

Will the ongoing collapse of the traditional center parties affect the winner’s ability to govern?

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Yes. Neither the center-right candidate, Valerie Pecresse, nor the socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, managed to win more than 5 percent of the vote in the first round, meaning both the Republicans and the Socialists will lose their public party funding. This does not bode well for the future of either traditional center party.

If Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche (LREM), does poorly in June’s parliamentary elections compared to five years ago—as is widely expected—he will be hard-pressed to form a working majority in the National Assembly. In that case, he could have to negotiate a governing coalition consisting of multiple parties with opposing agendas. This would make it harder for him to govern, especially compared to the last five years, during which his allies have enjoyed a strong majority.

What role has Russia’s war in Ukraine played in the campaign?

The war in Ukraine has hurt Macron’s most formidable opponents, while at the same time presenting him as someone the French can trust to manage the crisis.

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Campaign posters of French presidential election candidates Marine le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron feature on bulletin boards in Paris. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Zemmour supported Russian President Vladimir Putin and opposed France taking in any Ukrainian refugees. Le Pen’s party has suffered from revelations that it received financing from a Russian bank connected to Putin, and she supports reestablishing close relations with Moscow once the war is over. While the primary leftist challenger, Jean-Luc Melenchon, strongly condemned Russia’s invasion, he has previously been soft on autocratic strongmen such as Putin and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Even the previous center-right candidate, Francois Fillon, served on the board of Sibur, a Russian petrochemical company, before resigning in the wake of the invasion.

In sum, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a boon for the president, even though his diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the conflict have gone nowhere.

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How could the election affect France’s role in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

A Le Pen victory would be a political earthquake and have significant consequences for both the EU and NATO.

Le Pen promised to take France out of NATO’s integrated military command structure, which would be a body blow at a time when Western unity is needed most. Many of her central policy proposals are incompatible with EU principles, including her idea that French jobs should first go to French citizens and her proposed referendum on limiting immigration.

If Macron wins, he could gain some traction for his vision of “strategic autonomy,” which seeks to prioritize developing EU political and military leadership apart from NATO. This view gained support during the Donald Trump administration, when Washington came to be seen as an unreliable partner, but will now be met with skepticism, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Still, Macron has come a long way from his 2019 assertion that NATO is “brain dead.” He has had to admit that, now more than ever, it is needed for European security. The fact that Finland and Sweden are strongly considering joining the alliance underlines this point.

What’s at stake with other major policy questions?

A lot is at stake over the next five years. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU—under French-German leadership—has taken major steps to boost its sovereignty. These include providing more fiscal authority for Brussels, thanks to the unprecedented EU-wide $870 billion economic recovery fund created in the summer of 2020, but also major commitments by the German government to invest in defense, environmental sustainability, and energy independence from Russia.

A Macron victory would mean that the three Group of Seven (G7) members of the EU—France, Germany, and Italy—are governed by unabashedly pro-EU leaders, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Rome. It could be the meeting of minds that the European project has been waiting for since the early 1990s. However, if Le Pen wins, all bets are off. It would mean years of EU and transatlantic policy paralysis; the very last thing the West needs right now.