Macron on the back foot as France’s presidential election campaign starts in earnest.

Anne Fontaine’s new comedy Les Présidents, a work of political fiction, was an immediate hit in French cinemas this week. The plot is simple. Two former French presidents, once mortal enemies and now mouldering in retirement, team up to prevent a far right-wing politician called Marine from being elected to France’s highest office.

“Sarkozy is almost likeable – in the film,” the real-life François Hollande told Le Parisien newspaper. Nicolas Sarkozy got his own back, saying it was “too bad for Hollande” that he, Sarkozy, was played by the more glamorous actor, Jean Dujardin.

The film’s release was well timed, three days after the final round in nationwide local elections. Its pretext of mainstream politicians using their credentials as slayers of what the Sarkozy character calls “the fascist peril, the brown plague, the black-shirts, the barbed wire” to rehabilitate themselves politically is at the centre of the 2022 French presidential election campaign.

The conservative party Les Républicains had been in the doldrums since its last presidential candidate, François Fillon, was convicted of corruption. The Socialist Party didn’t make it to the run-off in 2017 and had to sell its party headquarters. But they were the big winners in the June 27th poll, which chose the executives of 13 regions, 95 departments and 2054 cantons for the next six years.

President Emmanuel Macron claimed the left-right divide in French politics had been supplanted by the showdown between his own self-declared progressive camp, and nationalists in Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. He thought he could decimate both former leading parties by luring their voters into his movement, La République En Marche. The local elections showed how far short of that goal he has fallen.

Le Monde billed the results as “the revenge of the old world”. In a replication of the results in 2015, before Macron took a wrecking ball to their duopoly, incumbents from LR won the presidencies of seven mainland regions, while Socialists retook the five regions they held. “Hope has changed sides; the soul of the fight has changed,” the editorial in the conservative daily Le Figaro gloated.

Face off?

Macron and Le Pen may face off again in presidential elections next April 10th and 24th, though neither of their parties won a single region. All 15 of the cabinet ministers Macron sent into battle were defeated. LREM won only one department, the West Indian island of Guadeloupe. The RN lost half the cantons it took in 2015.

French far-right Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

French far-right Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

The exceptionally high abstention rate – two-thirds of French voters boycotted the poll – and the “incumbent bonus” created by name recognition, go a long way to explaining the results. Older, more affluent voters, who tend to vote LR, turn out in greater numbers for intermediate elections. The young and underprivileged who comprise much of Le Pen’s electorate stay home.

Five years after Macron launched a movement cheekily designated by his own initials, En Marche, the French president has not created a strong party base. Professor Pascal Perrineau, one of the country’s most prominent political scientists, says Macron has only himself is to blame.

“Macron thinks he can win alone. He is contemptuous of parties in general, starting with his own. He takes all decisions himself and doesn’t delegate. [Former prime minister] Edouard Philippe was the only man who stood out, and Macron got rid of him because Philippe was in danger of overshadowing him.”

Le Pen’s campaign for respectability has disillusioned those voters who preferred her to be provocative. “The strength of the RN is to be anti-system,” Perrineau says. “But to win, the party has to act dignified, soften its rhetoric. It’s the problem of all parties that come from outside the system. They lose on one side what they seek to gain on the other.”

Because the constitution of France’s Fifth Republic makes the president a virtual monarch, the presidential election is increasingly seen as the only one that matters. The fanfare surrounding it “has almost become a form of hysteria”, says Perrineau. “One has the impression that France’s entire democratic life revolves around it.”

Obsession

France’s presidential obsession has flourished since the local elections. Two environmentalists declared themselves candidates this week. The Socialist president of the Occitanie region, Carole Delga, is the best-elected regional president, having won almost 58 per cent of the vote. She and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo are trumpeted as possible Socialist candidates. On Saturday and Sunday, the RN will nominate Le Pen at its party congress in Perpignan.

The president of the Occitanie region, Carole Delga, is trumpeted as a possible Socialist candidate for president. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

The president of the Occitanie region, Carole Delga, is trumpeted as a possible Socialist candidate for president. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

An Ifop-Fiducial poll published this week shows that Macron maintains a 41 per cent approval rating, exceptionally high for a president in his fourth year in office. But Macron has lost the advantage of novelty in his re-election campaign. And this time there is a hard core of voters on the far left and far right who hate him viscerally.

Although the RN is still considered the strongest opposition to Macron, the dynamic of the campaign has shifted. There is no desire for a repeat of the 2017 election, when Macron faced Le Pen and defeated her in the run-off. A majority of the population reject this chronicle of an election foretold, but until now, people seemed resigned to it. The strong performance by LR has raised the possibility of a third man or woman.

The party’s curse

With its Gaullist heritage, LR enjoys a broad electoral base. Regardless of the identity of France’s next president, he or she will have to work with a majority of LR-held local governments. Internal feuds among a surfeit of leaders have always been the party’s curse. Three conservative candidates – Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Laurent Wauquiez – were re-elected presidents of their regions by wide margins. Bertrand and Pécresse resigned from LR when Wauquiez headed the party, but are still identified with it.

For the time being, Xavier Bertrand is the rising force, the politician who could upset the expected duel between Macron and Le Pen. An Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll published on the day of the election showed Macron and Le Pen tied at 24 per cent of the vote if the first round were held now, with Bertrand third at 18 per cent.

Bertrand declared his candidacy in March and refuses to participate in a primary. Because he is more likely to attract far right voters than Macron, and because he is seen as experienced and credible in government, contrary to Le Pen, he represents a greater threat to both leading candidates than they do to each other.

French president Emmanuel Macron with the president of the northern France Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand, before a visiting to a car factor in Douai this week. Photgraph: Ludovic Marin/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron with the president of the northern France Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand, before a visiting to a car factor in Douai this week. Photgraph: Ludovic Marin/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Bertrand served continuously as minister of health, then minister of labour, throughout the seven years of Sarkozy’s presidency. He nonetheless has a man-of-the-people quality that Macron lacks. By trouncing the RN in one of its geographic strongholds, he has appropriated Macron’s claim to be the bulwark against the far right.

“This is a three-way race now,” Bertrand told the financial daily Les Échos. On the morning after the election, Bertrand and Macron jointly inaugurated a factory that will make batteries for electric cars in the northern town of Douai. Their encounter was hypocritically cordial. Bertrand had pre-empted Macron by announcing the creation of 1,000 jobs at the factory the previous week. He said he was annoyed that the Élysée wanted Macron to receive all the credit. “With Macron, war was declared some time ago,” Bertrand added.

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