Like many French citizens, I vividly remember the 8 o’clock news on the evening of the 21st of April, 2002. Half an hour before, our son called us from Paris, somewhat disturbed by the exit poll rumours. When television confirmed the accession of Jean-Marie Le Pen to the second tour of the presidential election, we were somewhere in the middle between disbelief and shock.
Twenty years later, anything but the qualification of his daughter for the run-off election on 24 April would come as a surprise. And the last two campaign weeks have produced a flurry of surveys indicating that she is even closing what seemed like an unbridgeable gap with Emmanuel Macron. The possibility of a far-right president of the French Republic, whose radically reactionary positions, openly spelt out in her programme, have successfully been hidden behind a patiently knitted mask of respectability, has become real.
It’s impossible not to be reminded of 2002.
Of course, France has changed tremendously in the meantime. The last decade has seen the political mainstream shift to what used to be considered extremist, demagogic themes and vocabulary, from Sarkozy’s obsession with identity to Fillon’s law and order toughness, right down to Zemmour’s hatemongering and rewriting of history. Macron’s surprising capacity to wake up and mobilise a moderate majority attached to values of decency and the Republic’s humanist heritage has not interrupted this long-term shift. Today, there is no point in denying that with over a third of voting intentions, the far-right is by far the strongest political family within the French electorate.
And yet, in the very different France of 2022, there are some eery parallels with the unfolding of the presidential election of twenty years ago. Four of them come to mind very spontaneously: 1) the soporific forecasts, 2) the all-dominating last-minute issue, 3) the stupidly self-defeating left, and 4) the anything-but-the-incumbent itch.
1. The soporific forecasts
In 2002, the result of the first round appeared to be known in advance. After five years of “cohabitation” marked by numerous conflicts, it was obvious that the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, and his socialist PM, Lionel Jospin, would face each other in the second round. How could it have been different? The very purpose of the run-off was to oppose the Gaullist candidate and the representative of the left, whatever the degree of unity the latter had attained in the build-up of the election.
Moreover, Jospin had been a surprisingly successful head of a surprisingly efficient government. Most of the quantitative indicators spoke in his favour, even the Anglo-American press was intrigued by the good performance of the French economy, despite socialist leadership. Contrary to expectations, the introduction of the 35-hour week had not sunk the country, and the so-called “Civil solidarity pact” – the first step towards homosexual marriage – was welcomed by many as a remarkable societal achievement.
Both Chirac and Jospin had the full support of their respective parties, and somniferous opinion polls confirmed there was absolutely no doubt they would make it to the second round. As a result, a large number of voters adopted one of two counter-productive attitudes: many of them decided to give their first-round vote to one of the other fourteen (yes, fourteen!), so-called “small” candidates, many others decided it was not even worth bothering to go to the polling station on 21st April (resulting in the record abstention of 28,4%). In 2022, forecasts have been similarly soporific over months, predicting a very comfortable lead of Emmanuel Macron. A tendency that was even temporarily reinforced by the rally-round-the-flag effect of the war in Ukraine. Was it a comfortable, but risky sense of security that prompted Macron to neglect the election campaign and enter it only at the very last minute? And even now that his team seems to have measured the danger, his campaign appears lukewarm at best. La République en Marche plays the election campaign like one of these clearly superior football teams who have underestimated their modest adversary and find themselves struggling to switch back to fighting mode in the middle of the match.
2. The all-dominating last-minute issue
In 2002, the last days of the election campaign all of a sudden crystallised around one major issue: “insecurity”. It had not come out of nowhere: accusations of laxity and unwillingness to fight crime effectively are a staple of far-right campaigning against left-wing governments. But it was conveniently reinforced by an outright hysterical television coverage.
For the last three days before the vote, a particularly revolting incident still known as “the Grandpa Voise affair” occupied the nation’s screens for days in a row. Paul Voise was a 72-year-old inhabitant of Orléans. Three days before the vote, he was beaten up by two hoodlums who then set fire to his house. The picture of Paul Voise’s swollen face in front of the ruins of his home, straight out of a “Clockwork Orange” playbook, was displayed across virtually every single media in the country.
Indignation, understandably, ran high. And to this day many observers remain convinced that the “Papy Voise” incident contributed significantly to tilting the vote in favour of the Front National candidate. Knowing that the difference between Jean-Marie Le Pen and Lionel Jospin was less than 200,000 votes (16,86% vs 16,18% respectively), this is not an extravagant claim.
Twenty years later, the election campaign was expected to be dominated by the usual issues. The far-right candidates were supposed to flourish on the threats to national identity, the decline of law and order (again), and of course immigration. The left was to bash Macron’s “brutal neoliberal policies”, and the Greens were to remind everybody of the climate imperative. Macron himself simply had to put his not-entirely brilliant, but not-so-bad-after-all balance sheet in the right light, capitalising on the reputation earned from his learning-by-doing crisis management and his international standing.
It turns out the only issue that counts in the final weeks of the campaign is purchase power. Or, if you prefer: costs of living. In a country whose geography (and real estate market) forces many to drive long miles in outdated cars, and whose middle-class lives on comparatively low salaries, the gas and diesel price hike is more than just a temporary nuisance. Purchase power is about inclusion and participation in a capitalist society. It was the strongest single motivation of the Yellow Jackets in 2018/19, and it’s back again, put to the forefront by the fallout of the Russian war in Ukraine.
There is no doubt that the massive preoccupation with costs of living plays into the hands of Marine Le Pen, who has managed, despite the lack of any tangible evidence, to position herself as the champion of those who suffer from real or perceived social inequality. Macron’s job-oriented policies may have yielded very encouraging results with regard tor reducing unemployment, but he is considered by a large number of citizens a member of a disconnected upper class: “the president of the rich”.
3. The stupidly self-defeating left
In 2002, the left, led by the socialist party, was nowhere near as frail as it has now become. Quite the contrary: as mentioned above, Lionel Jospin had been a very strong Prime minister, managing to maintain cohesion within a government composed by socialists, communists, and greens, and he stood more than a reasonable chance to win the election.
He had, however, one major handicap: he was considered “not leftist enough” by many traditional voter groups. Within teaching staff in secondary and higher education – a natural place to do my field work in – some snubbed him as “a social democrat”, a label certainly not supposed to be a compliment.
These “true” leftists, no doubt meaning to vote Jospin in the second round, had plenty of alternatives in order to give the too pragmatic PM a good lesson. There was a total of three Trotskyites to vote for (yes, three!), and together they obtained 10.44% of the vote (the equivalent of 3 million voters!). And that does not even include the Communist party leader, who earned 3.37%. Another 7,13% went to the two Green candidates, and to make things even worse, Jospin also had a fall-out with another leftist, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, on the Corsica question (already!). Chevènement, with his law-and-order approach, went on to win 5.3% of the vote. And there was Christiane Taubira, who won 2.32%.
In other words: by squandering more votes than Macron is likely to win in 2022, the left managed to find itself unrepresented in the second round after having obtained roughly half of the total votes. Jospin got the message and withdrew from political life the same evening, becoming within a few minutes the best President the Fifth Republic never had.
To my surprise there was little repentance among voters. Perhaps this is where the self-demolition of the socialist party really began, leading to the humiliation of 2022, where its candidate, the successfully re-elected, internationally known mayor of the world’s arguably most glamourous city struggles to obtain 2% in the first round of the presidential election.
4. The anything-but-the-incumbent itch
In April 2002, the specific circumstances outlined above – plethoric candidates, soporific opinion polls, self-defeating left – prevented Jacques Chirac from being ousted after a deeply dissatisfying term, in which he all but disqualified himself.
Elected on the promise to heal “the social fault line” (“la fracture sociale”) – presumably to distinguish himself from his staunch conservative rival Edouard Balladur – but did not deliver on it. And for most of the time of his mandate – five years out of seven – he was reduced to a rather passive role as helpless bystander of the Socialist government to which he had handed over power by calling for unnecessary snap elections in 1997.
Chirac was sure to lose. The figures speak for themselves. Of all incumbents of the Fifth Republic running for re-election, he has by far the poorest performance in the first round. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, at the laborious end of his seven years in power, obtained 28.32% in the first round of 1981, before being beaten by Mitterrand in the run-off. In 1988 Mitterrand himself won 34%, in 2012 Nicolas Sarkozy obtained 27.18%, the equivalent of roughly 10 million votes. Chirac, in comparison, managed to fall below the 20% line, with only 5.6 million votes. In none of the following elections would he even have made it into the second round with such a poor result.
No need to beat around the bush: Chirac was rejected by the electorate (before paradoxically sailing to an all-time record score against Le Pen in the second round), to a very similar degree as Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 and François Hollande in 2017. The latter even had to realise there was no point in applying for re-election. All of them were victims of the “anything-but-the incumbent” syndrome, which is the natural product of the frustration-machine that the Fifth Republic and its electoral system have become.
The big question for 2022 is of course whether Emmanuel Macron will be the next “one-off” president in line.
Most likely not. On the one hand, he has succeeded, despite all the waves of crisis that have hit the country over the past five years, in maintaining his remarkably solid voter base. Popularity rates have fluctuated significantly but voting intentions have always remained stable at a minimum of 25%.
On the other hand, he already was a dividing character before his election, qualified as “arrogant” and “disconnected” by many before they even knew him in office. And over his mandate, the rejection of his personality has not ebbed, quite the contrary. A series of quite awkward statements, perceived as humiliating for ordinary people and quoted to death on the social networks (often out of context), has reinforced the visceral antipathy many on the far left and far right of the political spectrum feel for him.
This being said, with 39% of outright rejection and 37% of sympathy – according to the latest of a long series of Odoxa surveys – he fares much better than his predecessors. It should be sufficient to be re-elected, which in an edgy, irritable, hypersensitive country would be no mean feat.
Echoes, but no repetition
Parallels across decades have their limits. While it is surprising to what extent some of the features of the extra-ordinary 2002 election may still ring alarm bells today, it does not make sense to ground any prediction on them.
The use of such comparisons lies in providing insight into social change, and the most spectacular example of social change lies in the fact that over only twenty years, the country went from being shocked at the mere presence of a Le Pen in the second round of its supreme election, to not only growing accustomed to it, but actually calmly discussing the possibility of a far-right president.
There is a certain numbness in the air, as if the cyclical repetition of hysterical election campaigns, reinforced by the evolution of the mediatic environment, had finally hollowed out intellectual resistance to an irresistible hegemonic discourse. That’s probably where the major difference lies between then and now: while April 21st 2002 came as a shock, April 24th 2022 may come as a docile, obedient surrender.