In a grim national address on Feb. 24, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have “lasting consequences on our lives.” He did not spell out the consequences, perhaps because they are so obvious. They will not only be geographical and political. They will also be material and financial. The event provoking these changes, Macron rightly noted, “marks a turning point in the history of Europe and our country.”
Will the war in Europe’s east, though, also mark a turning point for politics in France? This, too, is a question sitting on the minds of Macron and the several candidates who are challenging him, come April 10, in the first round of France’s presidential election. While Russia’s attack on Ukraine does not threaten democracy in France, it may well speed changes in the nature of the presidency that have marked Macron’s term of office.
For the past several months, French and foreign commentators have claimed that the very future of democracy in France is at stake in the upcoming elections. Echoing this sentiment, the liberal Institut Jean-Jaurès think tank declared last year that “never has French democracy been so imperiled” while an article in the staid Revue politique et parliamentaire wondered if, indeed, “French democracy is in danger.”
When this warning is sounded or this question is posed, it is most often in the context of the campaigns of the veteran political figure Marine Le Pen and the violent media pundit Éric Zemmour. They are the leaders, respectively, of the Rassemblement National and Reconquête!, both of which are extreme right-wing parties that, marrying populist and nationalist principles, are deeply xenophobic and Islamophobic. The unalloyed racism of Zemmour, who has repeatedly been hauled into court for inciting racial hatred, has succeeded in softening the image of Le Pen. Yet, as most observers agree, there is little distinction in the policy differences between the two movements.
Tellingly, opinion polls suggest that voters see a vital difference between the two candidates. Last month, a poll published in Franceinfo revealed that while 62% of respondents believe that Zemmour represents a “danger for democracy,” only 50% believe this is also true for Le Pen. This means the Le Pen camp can now see the glass as half-full, something impossible to do during the 2017 elections, when nearly 60% of French believed she was a menace to democracy.
And yet, while the understated Le Pen and the unspeakable Zemmour both espouse anti-democratic and anti-pluralist principles, polls also reveal that neither candidate stands a chance of defeating Macron in the second round of the elections on April 24th. (In fact, neither of them has yet succeeded in gathering the 500 signatures from elected officials—the so-called parrains—that will allow them to run in the election.) According to a poll in Le Monde, Zemmour would garner scarcely 38% of the vote—a slight improvement on the 34% that voted for Le Pen in 2017. This time around, Le Pen would push slightly above 40%.
But what of Macron?
In the same poll that found that at least one-half of France worried about Le Pen and Zemmour’s toxicity for democracy, 31% believed that Macron himself was a danger. While not asked for their reasons, no doubt they veered all over the political spectrum, from the conspiratorial to the personal. Yet is it possible that the president’s electoral strategy and apparent ideology might, in fact, have unhappy consequences for France’s democracy?
As concerns the strategy, Macron delayed the official declaration of his candidacy until last week. He had excellent reasons: Covid-19’s invasion of France, followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand Macron’s full attention. Inevitably, though, these same reasons comfort his canny strategy to remain au-dessus de la mêlée, too busy safeguarding France against threats to shake the hands of the French on campaign tours. As Éric Pauget, a parliamentary representative of Macron’s party, La République en Marche, noted, “as long as Macron does not enter the ring, there will be no starting bell.”
Moreover, Macron’s camp has striven to marginalize the conservative candidate of Les Républicains, Valerie Pécresse, by focusing on the fundamentally marginal campaigns of Zemmour and Le Pen. Time and again, his campaign has insisted that Macron’s real opponent is the far right, not the traditional right. This would be true by extension for the Republic, as well. While Le Pen and Zemmour’s worldview is appalling, it is also shared by one-third of the electorate. Given the fragmentation of parties on the left, Pécresse is the only mainstream candidate capable of giving French voters a real alternative to Macron. According to the latest Le Figaro poll, however, she has fallen behind her far-right competitors: While Zemmour and Le Pen are neck and neck at 16.5%, Pécresse, at 12%, is a distant fourth.
This is where the danger lies. Come the second round of voting, the lack of a true alternative to Macron will translate into a lack of choice, and thus a lack of agency for a majority of French voters. Why bother voting when there is in effect only one candidate, Macron, on the ballot? Abstentionism, which soared well above 60% in last year’s regional elections, might continue its rise, which can only give an unwelcome nudge to the slow descent of democracy.
We must also consider Macron’s political convictions. These became clearer as the pandemic settled into a constant. Consider his “emmerder” moment, when he promised to “piss off” those who had yet to get vaccinated. What shocked was less Macron’s language than the political values behind it. As he made clear at the time, Macron considered duties more important than rights. In essence, he claimed that the state, embodied by the president, can give and take away the rights ostensibly inherent to all citizens at times of national emergency. As Libération’s Jean Quatremer concluded, Macron believes that “rights are not inherent to human beings, but instead granted at the pleasure of the State.”
Macron routed the traditional political parties in 2017. He created a party with neither counterweights nor voices contrary to his own, and he embraced the so-called vertical conception of the presidency, which places the president as the cornerstone of the state. His skill in doing so has further weakened the already frail institutional checks against presidential overreach.
There is an ironic element to this development. By assuming that he alone can guarantee the wellbeing of France, Macron risks not only making his office more vulnerable to public opinion, but also making democracy, in the eyes of his fellow citizens, more irrelevant.
Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. The views expressed are the author's own.