French Election 2022 – The Power of Narrative

The narrative surrounding an election becomes that election itself, or at least that’s the sense I got discussing French electoral politics with Dr Aurelien Mondon, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath and expert in Comparative French politics.
That is the power of the narrative.

For France the choice is clear, a Centralist President holding back a tide of Far-right extremists in Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen, the daughter of a Vichy France apologist. At least that is what the media would have us think and indeed had the French people believing before a single ballot in the first round of the French presidential election had been cast. Within this narrative the French people were effectively told its Macron or Le Pen and there were no other options for the second round.

However the reality was that on the 10April the ‘left wing firebrand’ Jean-Luc Mélenchon came within 1.2% of Le Pen in spite of the existing narrative peddled by the French and international press that he didn’t stand a chance. Moreover, the media’s love affair with Zemmour plunged the election into a supposed surge of support for Right Wing populists and yet again in contrast to this narrative, in 2022 it would appear that the voter base of the ‘right’ has collapsed with Le Pen garnering just 457,878 more votes than she did in 2017 and Zemmour and Pécresse combined falling far short of the 20% of the vote secured by Le Republican’s in 2017.

In contrast the left and centrist vote amounted to 61% of votes cast for candidates matching those labels attributed to them by the media – including Macron – in the first round of the 2022 election in contrast with just 52% of voters voting for those same labelled candidates in 2017. Therefore, if the threat of the Right/Far-Right has actually declined in recent years, why is the narrative we hear in the British and indeed the French press themselves so pervasive? The answer lies in who sets that narrative and how. Dr Mondon suggests this narrative is set by the media barons, the establishment and even the President himself.

Despite Macron promising a ‘third way’ in 2017 in which he suggested he’d borrow from both the Left and Right in order to forge a new path that would reinvigorate and build a new coalition of centrists. But most pundits and experts, including Dr Mondon, would instead argue that Macron has actually fallen into becoming simply a right-wing president who has played the game of stoking far-right sentiments. This is borne out by:

  • anti-Islamic rhetoric including Macron calling out a supposed “Islamo-Leftist” attitude within France’s universities bolstering the Far-Right in their assessment that both Islam and Leftism run contrary to French secular values and
  • the wider establishment’s focus on snippets of policy including primarily divisive issues like immigration

This shows that Macron and the media would rather settle into traditional thinking than spend their capital addressing the quality of wider democratic debate and discussions on the style of society the French wish to live in.

The suggestion is that he and the establishment have done this for two distinct reasons:

  • to distract from despised policies that support the wealthiest French citizens to the detriment of the poorest like the scrapping of the Wealth Tax and the cutting of corporation tax from 33% to 25% across five years combined with an imperative focus on and obsession with the policy of Austerity and deficit reduction.
  • a cynical attempt to be re-elected, through the path of least resistance. By securitizing the threat of the far-right, Macron is gambling as he did in 2017 that centrist, centre-right and left-wing voters will be so afraid of Le Pen that they’ll overwhelmingly back him and all the while he can escape the battle without addressing any of the real societal concerns plaguing western democracies that he might be confronted with by the Left.

Despite this cynical approach, Dr Mondon believes Macron will win the election in a comfortable manor supposing his gamble will pay off with a potential 5 million vote differential – a halving of his 2017 majority. This difference he argues derives from potential political apathy on the Left whose distaste for Macron and the betrayal of his ‘third way’ may mean they stay at home, refusing to stand up to fascism due to attrition regarding the status quo.

We ended our discussion secure in the understanding that the establishment will win out again this time. But we were wary that, if Far-right talking points are peddled throughout Macron’s next term along with a systematic dismantling of the ‘left’, combined with the crumbling of the traditional Socialists and Republicans, Le Pen may well stand again and next time she could not only win, but win handsomely.

Ed: Dr Aurelien Mondon’s most recent and relevant works:

Brown K & Mondon A (2020) ‘Populism, the media and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study’, Politics, online first

Mondon A and Winter A (2020) ‘Reactionary Democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream’. London: Verso.

Mondon A (2013) ‘A Populist Hegemony? Mainstreaming the Extreme Right in France and Australia’. Farnham: Ashgate.

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