Marta Lorimer and Lise Esther Herman look back on the French elections of 2022, reflecting on the continued shift towards a three-way split in French politics and an increasingly unstable centre ground.
Few expected the French presidential and legislative elections of 2022 to be eventful. Emmanuel Macron was projected to win the presidential election easily and to secure a parliamentary majority to go with it. These expectations proved only half right. Macron did get re-elected, but he failed to get a parliamentary majority. In a recent contribution to the Journal of Common Market Studies, we retrace the steps leading to this result and consider what they tell us about the changing landscape of French politics.
The presidential and legislative elections of 2022
Leading his party La République en Marche (now renamed ‘Renaissance’), and with the support of a broad centrist alliance, incumbent president Emmanuel Macron was the man to beat in the 2022 presidential election. His top contender on the left was Jean-Luc Mélenchon who, on his third electoral campaign, led the radical left-wing La France Insoumise. On the right, the battle was between mainstream right-wing candidate Valérie Pécresse (Les Republicains), and radical right candidates Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) and newcomer Eric Zemmour (Recounquete!).
The electoral campaign ended as expected: in a run-off between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, followed by a Macron victory with 58.55%. However, he was running against a party considered by many a threat to democracy in a context of record-breaking abstention – leading to suggestions he had been ‘poorly elected.’
In turn, the June 2023 legislative elections left Macron 44 seats short of an absolute majority. The Left won a sizeable 153 seats thanks to the creation of the four-party electoral alliance Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale. For its part, the radical right Rassemblement National secured the election of an unprecedented total of 88 MPs.
The tripolarisation of French politics
The results of 2022 deepened several trends from the previous election, attesting to the changing nature of French politics.
First, they confirmed the continued decline of the previously dominant mainstream parties. Gathering 1.75% and 4.78% respectively in the presidential election, Anne Hidalgo of the mainstream left Parti Socialiste and Valerie Pécresse of mainstream right Les Républicains earned the lowest scores in both of their parties’ history. Although Les Républicains did somewhat better in the legislative elections, both parties are fighting to maintain their political relevance.
Second, these elections consolidated France’s move towards tripolarisation: the French party system is now divided between Macron’s centrist option, and two radical options on the left (Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise) and the right (Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National).
These trends are reflective of distinct shifts and increased fragmentation within the French electorate. The Rassemblement National over-represents younger voters, with lower levels of education and blue-collar jobs. According to a recent study, 45% of those defined as ‘employees’ (i.e. in work that is neither manual nor managerial) chose the Rassemblement National in the last elections, along with 28% of those without a high-school diploma, and 31% who describe themselves as ‘underprivileged’. Le Pen’s party has also done particularly well in the deindustrialised zones of Northern France and the traditionally conservative Mediterranean basin.
La France Insoumise voters share some sociological characteristics with their far-right counterparts. As shown by Kuhn, left-wing and, to a lesser extent, far-left voters were less privileged than average, with the unemployed, low earners as well as those who consider themselves to belong to the ‘classes populaires’ being over-represented. They were also, however, younger than Rassemblement National voters, more likely to live in urban centres and had above-average levels of education.
In turn, those voting for Macron were similarly more educated than average, but also significantly older than either far-left or far-right voters. Crucially, material security was one of the strongest predictors for a centrist choice in these elections. As highlighted by Knapp, ‘all the indicators of occupation, self-declared class, life satisfaction, education, income, or financial security, offer a practically linear relationship between comfort, security, and the Macron vote.’
These shifts point towards the consolidation of a divide opposing those most impacted by the effects of globalisation, and those most protected from these effects. This is also reflected in the programmes of different French parties today. While the centre ground represented by Macron supports the economic implications of open borders, the radical left and radical right bloc are fundamentally opposed to this neoliberal outlook.
In turn, these last two blocs clash in their approach to the cultural dimension of globalisation, with deeply entrenched opposition on issues of immigration, environmental policy, cultural diversity and gender rights.
An unstable centre-ground
The absence of a clear majority around any of these three options creates particularly unstable ground for contemporary French politics, where cross-bloc coalitions and alliances are essentially unthinkable.
Macron has been forced into forming a minority government, led by Elisabeth Borne, that depends on the external support of 64 Les Républicains MPs. This is an unusual configuration in France’s hyper-majoritarian political system. Another survival strategy for the Borne government has been to pit the two oppositions against each other, forming ad hoc majorities depending on which legislation is voted in.
When everything else fails, Macron can also rely on the tools provided by the French constitution. In March 2023 the government used article 49.3, which allows a law to be adopted without a vote (unless a no confidence motion is passed), to pass a particularly controversial pension reform in the face of parliamentary opposition.
Although political decision-making has therefore remained possible, the 2022 elections and their aftermath have left French voters increasingly disillusioned and the political centre-ground considerably weakened. This comes in a more general context of rising defiance and distrust, with only 39% expressing satisfaction with Macron’s record in June 2022, compared with 58% at the same time in 2017.
Since the election, the Rassemblement National has also been given unprecedented media exposure through its parliamentary participation and has successfully cultivated a more polished image. A year after the 2022 Parliamentary elections, the share of respondents ready to vote for the Rassemblement National has increased by 7 points (from 19 to 26%). As its status as main opposition contender consolidates, the ‘glass ceiling’ between Le Pen and the centre of French political power is showing signs of shatter.