With less than six months to go, the picture in the double-leg French presidential election, scheduled on April 10 and 24, is beginning to unfold enigmatically.

Five years ago, Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in the Parti Socialiste President Francois Hollande’s cabinet, sensationally created a centrist political movement ‘En Marche’ from scratch to subdue the long established Left and Right wing parties. It was a phenomenon almost unprecedented in a long-standing, mature western democracy.

In the electoral system in France, the two leading vote catchers in the first ballot qualify for the deciding vote. Recent opinion polls indicate that in the final head-to-head, a Far Right candidate could figure again. In effect, traditional Rightists inspired by Charles de Gaulle, who founded the country’s Fifth Republic and was its President from 1959 to 1969, consequently known as Gaullists, and the socialists are forecast to be eliminated in the preliminary stage, unless there’s a dramatic churn.

Eminent political scientist Pascal Perrineau was quoted as saying that the Gaullists, officially Les Republicains, “remains traumatised by the 2017 Presidential election and weakened by its divisions”.

Yet, their base of supporters exists. It still controls a majority of French urban areas. The contestant for the Parti Socialiste, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, though, is faring poorly in opinion polls.

The French Far Right under the banner of the National Front party has for decades developed under the Le Pen family – the father Jean-Marie giving way to daughter Marine, who contested last time, finishing second.

Now, though, she is encountering a stiff challenge in the extreme sphere from a 63-year-old journalist and TV pundit Eric Zemmour, described by the French Le Monde newspaper as a “Far Right polemicist”. In 2018, he was convicted of provoking hate against Muslim; and in 2011 had been found guilty of racial discrimination.

On October 13, a Harris Interactive survey reflected voting intentions of 17 per cent in Zemmour’s favour, second to Macron with 24 per cent support. What the figures, if true, reflect is a 32 per cent wave in the direction of the Far Right, since Le Pen was sad to attract 15 per cent endorsement.

The Les Republicains candidate will be chosen at a party congress on December 8. The three current aspirants being Xavier Bertrand (14/15 per cent), Valerie Pecresse (11 per cent) and Michel Barnier (7/9 per cent), who shot to fame as the European Union’s Brexit negotiator.

Bertrand is perceived to be popular. If he emerges as the contender for his party and they unite behind him, he could benefit from the split between Le Pen and Zemmour in the hard Right segment. As of the present, it appears Zemmour has eaten into the mainstream right constituency with his charge that today’s Les Republicains have betrayed de Gaulle.

A Politico poll of polls projects 25 per cent for Macron, 17 per cent for Le Pen, 15 per cent for Zemmour and 14 per cent for Bertrand in the opening heat; and 57 per cent for Macron and 43 per cent for Le Pen in the run-off. The inference from this is, Covid, terrorism and other debilitating factors notwithstanding, the incumbent is the man to beat.

Besides, Macron, despite his “neither Left nor Right” stance, is expected to target the Gaullists to expand his middle-of-the-road embrace. The Left is meanwhile impressed by the success of Macron’s roll-out of the Covid booster dose.

Immigration, identity and Islam have surfaced as major issues. It is not just Le Pen and Zemmour raising these, but Barnier seems to have turned his back on Europeanism by advocating a limited jurisdiction for European courts and a freeze on immigration, which is mainly from non-white nations.

However, for the moment it’s Zemmour who’s doing the running; and the other Right wingers the catching up. His softness for French Nazi collaborators during German occupation of France in the Second World War and intolerance towards feminists, blacks and Muslims has shattered the serenity of the French who pride their inclusive image.

There are some 40 candidates in the fray. Most of course will fall by the wayside as campaigning gathers steam.

–IANS

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