France will choose its next president this Sunday. As in the 2017 election, voters will once again decide between Emmanuel Macron of the centrist Republic On The Move Party and Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the far-right National Rally Party. While the names on the ballot may be the same, the odds have dramatically shifted since 2017 when Macron easily defeated Le Pen 66 percent to 34 percent. Although the incumbent is still forecasted to win, the margin will be much narrower, with Macron projected to take 57 percent of the vote and Le Pen 43 percent. Low turnout could also move the odds in the challenger’s favor. Moreover, the fact that Le Pen has managed to get within spitting distance of the Élysée Palace demonstrates the extent to which her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s fringe party has been mainstreamed.
Whereas the election’s first round was more broadly waged on national security and cultural issues, the second round has focused more on the candidates’ economic platforms, as recent polling cites purchasing power as the No. 1 issue for every age demographic.
Le Pen has softened her hardline immigration rhetoric and positioned herself as an advocate for everyday people in contrast to Macron’s ivory-tower elitist persona. She blames her opponent for France’s rising inflation, which was 4.5 percent at the end of March, the highest level since December of 1985, as well as his administration’s excessive spending, with public debt at 112 percent of GDP in 2021.
France’s inflation rate, which has been aggravated by COVID-19 and higher food and gas prices as a result of the war in Ukraine, will continue to be the kitchen table topic du jour for the foreseeable future. The larger question is which candidate has the better program for increasing consumer purchasing power, growing industrial competitiveness, and implementing the necessary reforms to ameliorate the country’s economy for the long term.
The Movement of the Enterprises of France, France’s largest federation of employers, believes that Macron is better positioned to spearhead France’s economy than Le Pen. A recent press release from the employer federation stated that although Macron’s program has some gaps, he is the better candidate to lead France towards long-term growth and competitiveness. The organization maintains that Le Pen’s call for increased public spending will place France in an economic impasse and marginalize its position within the European Union.
More specifically, a group of economists who analyzed the candidates’ respective strategies for increasing consumer purchasing power pinpointed the “holes” in both of their programs. They argued that Le Pen’s proposal to decrease the tax on energy products from 20 percent to 5.5 percent is not properly targeted and will benefit higher-income individuals who do not need the tax break. And while the economists were generally less critical of Macron, they still found fault with his proposal to implement temporary price freezes on gas, oil, and electricity because these measures would also be too broadly deployed to have a meaningful impact.
Macron and Le Pen are at loggerheads on other hot-button economic issues. For instance, Macron has been a proponent of optimizing the budget by raising the retirement age from 62 to 65, a position championed by France’s center-right party, The Republicans. Prominent Republicans, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former 2022 presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse are supporting Macron in the second round of elections. To appease the left, Macron recently modified his program to raise the retirement age to only 64. Le Pen, on the other hand, proposes maintaining the existing retirement age of 62 while also lowering it to 60 for individuals who have been in the workforce for 40 years.
France’s 2022 presidential election is far from decided. A poll conducted after the candidates’ final debate on April 20 further reinforces the tightness of the race, with 56 percent rating Macron as more effective in the debate and 44 percent saying the same for Le Pen. By contrast, 72 percent gave Macron the higher ranking in a comparable 2017 poll. In the debate, Macron performed better on economic issues, with 55 percent judging him to be the better candidate to grow France’s economy, compared to Le Pen at 39 percent. However, Le Pen was rated higher on national security and immigration, with 57 percent of voters deeming her more competent in these domains compared to Macron at 39 percent.
Voter turnout, which is projected to hit a historic low of 70 percent, remains the wild card. Furthermore, 48 percent of the supporters of the left-wing France Unbowed candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received 22 percent of the first-round vote, are forecasted to abstain. The final debate, which only garnered 15.6 million viewers, the lowest rating in history, is yet another indicator of voter apathy and a harbinger of low turnout.
Neither Le Pen nor Macron has the luxury of complacency. As Prime Minister Jean Castex recently commented: “The game isn’t done and dusted and we certainly cannot draw the conclusion … that this election is already decided.” What will happen on April 24? Will France vote for five more years of Macron or will Madame Le Pen win and ultimately push France further to the right? The world awaits the election results with bated breath.