OPINION: Only two people can win the French presidential election and it will be close

With the official candidates (almost) all in place for the 2022 French presidential election, John Lichfield looks at who is likely to make the second round - and what this will mean for France.

Valerie Pécresse is the French centre-right candidate.
Valerie Pécresse is the French centre-right candidate. Photo: Julien Da Rosa/AFP

French politics is complicated but let’s make things simple. Only two people can win the presidential election in April – President Emmanuel Macron and Valérie Pécresse, who was selected on Saturday as the official candidate of the centre-right.

Of the 15 or so likely candidates in Round One, only four people can reach the two-candidate run-off on April 24th: Macron and Pécresse and the terrible twins of the far right, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

Macron would beat either Le Pen or Zemmour – Zemmour somewhat more easily than Le Pen. Pécresse would crush either of them.

But Macron v Pécresse in Round Two? That would be very close indeed.

Is France heading for its first woman President and its first female leader since the regent Marie de Médicis in the early 17th century? Not necessarily.

Pécresse, 54, as things stand, has only a slender chance of finishing in the top two in the first round on April 10th. She is trailing badly in the opinion polls, with only 8 to 10 percent of first round support.

Macron, talking an average of recent opinion polls, is on 24 percent. Le Pen back to 19 or 20 percent. Zemmour has slipped back to 15 or 16 percent.

Much can happen in four months – especially with a new wave of Covid-19 raging and another, potentially nasty variant threatening. Pécresse will get a bounce in the polls from her victory on Saturday in the closed primary of the main centre-right party, Les Républicains (LR). But so will Eric Zemmour.

In all the hoopla of the weekend – the Pécresse victory and the first big Zemmour rally at Villepinte (the French Nuremburg?), it was easy to miss a significant straw in the wind.

A small but influential party or pressure group called Le Mouvement Conservateur, formerly Sens Commun, severed its official link with Les Républicains after Pécresse crushed the hard-right parliamentarian Eric Ciotti 61-39 percent  in the second round of the LR primary.

The party – dominated by well-off, devout Catholics who are anti-gay and anti-abortion and anti-Islam – moved into the camp of Eric Zemmour. They said that “French civilisation” was at stake and they did not believe that Valérie Pécresse would defend it.

And yet Pécresse – smart, tough, a fluent debater – is one of their own. She was educated at a convent school in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the ultra-wealthy town on the western border of Paris. She was a leading figure in the anti-gay marriage movement Manif pour Tous in 2012-3.

Since she became president of the greater Paris region, Île-de-France, Pécresse has accepted that gay marriage is part of the social acquis (status quo) and cannot be reversed. That is one of the reasons why she is detested by some in her own party and a large section of the wider and harder French Right.

The other reason is that she left the Républicains in 2017 after disobeying party orders and announcing that she would support Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.

It was instructive to read the reactions on social media on Saturday to the Pécresse victory. Ciotti supporters called  her, amongst other things “Valérie Traitresse” , “Valérie Princesse” and a “Macron-en-jupe” (Macron-in-a-skirt”).

If elected President, they said, she would pursue the same pro-European, centrist policies, allegedly weak on migration and crime, which governments of the left, right and centre have pursued for decades. President Valerie Macron, President Emmanuel Pécresse – same difference.

Pécresse, of course, sees things differently. She told the Journal du Dimanche today that she would offer a “powerful project of rupture (with the past)”. Unlike Macron, she would not be a “President zig-jag”.

Yes, she would be different – in style and at the margins. But fundamentally the Pécresse haters on the right-of-the-Right are right.

Under a President Pécresse France would remain deeply engaged in the European Union. The economic reforms begun under François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron would continue. She might by a little tougher on crime and migration but there would not be the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim policies threatened by Zemmour and Le Pen.

A section of the French centre-right has already moved into the Macron camp: the former Prime minister Edouard Philippe, the present Prime Minister, Jean Castex, the finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, the interior minister Gérald Darmanin, the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi.

What is the ideological difference between these people and  Valérie Pécresse? There is none.

If Macron and Pécresse come head-to-head in the second round on April 24th, it will in effect be a choice between Brie and Camembert, Burgundy and Bordeaux, a question of taste, judgement and allegiance, rather than fundamental differences. They are both in the same pro-European, pro-market, managerial camp which currently commands the allegiance of around 30 percent of French voters.

Another 30 percent supports the Left but they are hopelessly scattered between 6 or 7 candidates. None of them has more than 10 percent support. Unless something very dramatic happens, there will be no left or green candidate in top four on April 10th, let alone the top two. Many people of the Left may be obliged to vote grouchily against the far right two weeks later.

The remaining 30 percent of French voters – or rather more – want to see a President of the hard or far right. They no longer make a distinction between these categories. They are Eurosceptic or Europhoboic, nationalist or outright xenophobic.

The frontier between this nationalist bloc and the moderate Macron-Pécresse centre-to-centre-right  now passes almost through the middle of Les Républicains party. Some of the 39 percent of party members who voted for Ciotti on Saturday (and their equivalents in the wider electorate) will support Pécresse. Many will not.

To reach Round Two, Pécresse will rely on the Zemmour vote melting down – but not too much. She needs to win back the centre-right voters who have migrated to him. But she needs him to hold on to voters he has taken from Le Pen.

She needs a three-way battle for second place on April 10th in which she can pip Le Pen and Zemmour. She would then be supported by much of the Macron-hating Left in Round Two (who would cheerfully detest her for the next five years).

I think it’s, on balance, unlikely that Pécresse will win the presidency. She could. If so, nothing very dramatic would change.

The big battle for the soul of France – democratic or authoritarian; European or ultra-nationalist – may be coming. But it will happen in 2027, not 2022.

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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.