"France remains a divided country" - Three questions for Cornelia Woll

Hertie School President comments on the French presidential elections.

Rien ne va plus: The votes of the first round of the 2022 French presidential election are in. As in 2017, the centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron will face right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen in the run-offs. Hertie School President Cornelia Woll, who has lived and worked in France for almost twenty years, comments on the election results.

Le Pen and Macron are heading to the second round: What do these results indicate about the mood in France?

On paper France looks like a healthy country, where the incumbent should have no problems making his case: Employment rates are the highest since 2004, and the GDP is the strongest in 52 years. So this should have been a home run for Macron. But the election campaign showed that it wasn’t. France remains a divided country. Emmanuel Macron won the presidency in 2017 by breaking with political competition between the left and the right. With a united centrist platform, he cemented the end of the traditional center-left and center-right in France, the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains.

This time, the most successful candidates in the run up to the first round came from the extremes of the political spectrum – on the far right Marine Le Pen and provocateur Eric Zemmour, and on the left Jean-Luc Melénchon. They all share an emphasis on anti-system voting, a break with the past and insistence on French national interests against a global or European ambition. Emmanuel Macron is so clearly identified as the pro-European candidate of the successful, wealthy and urban elite that he has little support in rural areas and among less skilled workers.

How likely is a Marine Le Pen victory, and what would it mean?

The far right has never been as close to power as in the current election. Marine Le Pen has steadily increased her standing in the last weeks. After decades of “demonisation”, her party Rassemblement National became an acceptable political choice for those that felt left behind, due to her skilled political communication. The outrageous statements of her competitor on the right, Eric Zemmour, contributed to making her appear much milder. What is most surprising, however, is that voting surveys indicate that she might receive substantial vote shares not just from those who voted on the right, but also for those who voted for candidates on the left. It is possible that she will gather a substantial amount of anti-system votes, from people who simply want to see Emmanuel Macron out of power. So there is a realistic possibility that Marine Le Pen will find herself in the Elysée Palace at the end of April.

Why is this election important for Europe and Germany?

Marine Le Pen has always been clear about her opposition to European integration, and she has been very critical of German leadership in particular. Her attraction to authoritarian leaders such as Victor Orbán in Hungary and also Vladimir Putin indicates how she feels about democratic institutions. Her presidency would bring Europe to a standstill. Decision-making would be frozen without the possibility for Franco-German cooperation, with a deep dividing line running through the middle of the European Union. Although she cannot undo decades of integration single-handedly, she can block progress and make Europe unable to act with a single voice. In a period where our geopolitical role hinges critically on being united, her victory would send a strong signal to autocratic leaders. For Vladimir Putin, her victory would be a major source of comfort.

Photo: Lorie Shaull, Flickr

More about our expert

  • Cornelia Woll, President and Professor of International Political Economy