A majority of French people feel the 2022 presidential election campaign has been poor quality and never really got off the ground, which could lead to protest votes and a historically low turn-out in Sunday’s first round, pollsters and analysts have said.
An Ifop poll this month found 80% of French people felt the campaign was “poor quality”. Voters have complained of a lack of new political ideas or vision, and few solutions to their problems, after two years of the Covid pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a cost-of-living crisis.
Emmanuel Macron is campaigning to become the first French president in 20 years to win re-election, promising to continue to lower taxes, raise the pension age to 65, and get France to full employment after decades of mass joblessness. But he entered the race late, focusing instead on diplomacy with Vladimir Putin, and has seen his poll lead slip slightly in recent days while the far-right’s Marine Le Pen closes the gap in second place.
Le Pen has focused on the cost of living crisis, while her anti-immigration programme would ban the Muslim head-scarf from all public places. The hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also rising in the polls, promising to freeze prices and overhaul the presidential system.
Despite French voters’ main concerns – the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine and the environment – there has been less interest in this campaign than in the last presidential election five years ago. There have been fewer rallies, and voters have complained there was no direct TV debate between all candidates.
As the first-round campaign entered its final week, 54% of people said they felt it hadn’t really started yet. An unprecedented number of French voters say they are unsure who to vote for and abstention could hit a record high of up to 30% on Sunday.
Macron has tried to mobilise his voters by likening the political mood to that in the UK before the 2016 Brexit vote.
There’s “no certainty,” he warned at his only rally, in Nanterre outside Paris, brushing aside his lead in the polls. “Don’t believe in polls or commentators who sound definitive and tell you that … the election is already done, that everything is going to be alright. From Brexit to so many elections, what seems unlikely can happen!”
Macron later told a radio interviewer he felt society was “fatigued by two years of Covid” and “stunned” by the war in Ukraine. He argued that “real topics” had indeed been discussed in the campaign, saying “war is a real topic!” but he conceded there was “a collective questioning on whether voting still makes sense.” He argued voting was crucial.
Pollsters say the fact that this election was for months seen as a foregone conclusion – that Macron would easily win – could impact turn-out and choices, and create a sense of voters wanting to prove predictions wrong. A total of 66% of French people currently believe Macron will win – a figure that has dropped in recent weeks as Le Pen’s support has risen.
The sense of fatigue and foregone-conclusion has drawn comparisons with the 2002 election “earthquake” 20 years ago, when Le Pen’s father, the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen, knocked out the left to reach the final against Jacques Chirac.
“Just like today, in 2002 there was a constant feeling of a campaign that didn’t work, which in turn created a temptation towards a protest vote,” said François Miquet-Marty, head of Viavoice pollsters. “Our polling shows 75% of French people think there aren’t really any new ideas in this campaign. And at the same time, 76% of people are worried about their children’s futures. There is a sense that the solutions on offer in this campaign aren’t enough.”
French media and analysts have described the campaign as putting voters to sleep in a country already worn out by crises. The Communist candidate Fabien Roussel this week described the campaign “as on morphine”. Jean Lassalle, a south-western lawmaker running on rural issues, told a TV interviewer in February: “This campaign is shit” and the clip has circulated widely ever since.
Early campaigning began last autumn amid the Omicron wave of Covid infections. Then the surprise rise of the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour initially pushed the issue of national identity to the top of the agenda. But the war in Ukraine ultimately dominated headlines. Macron postponed his own start to campaigning, initially benefiting from a kind of “rally round the flag” boost in the polls. Currently, Macron has dipped, although he holds a lead, while Le Pen and Mélenchon are rising and Zemmour has sunk back in the polls.