Will a surprise candidate shake up the French election?

Charles de Gaulle created a system where a surprise candidate can upend the presidential elections in France. Will it happen in 2022?

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In the history of French presidential elections under the Fifth Republic, no candidate has ever managed to gather more than 50% of the votes in the first round of voting and accede to power without having to get through a second round.

Until recently, the vote for a new president was perceived as an expected duel between the two favourites usually representing the right and the left (De Gaulle/Mitterrand in 1965, Giscard d’Estaing/Mitterrand in 1974 and 1981, Chirac/Mitterrand in 1988, Chirac/Jospin in 1995, Sarkozy/Royal in 2007, Sarkozy/Hollande in 2012).

After departures from this norm in 1969 and 2002, the consensus was again upturned in 2017 with the victory of centrist Emmanuel Macron over far-right Marine Le Pen, neither of whom represented the two major parties who have held the presidency since 1958.

According to the current opinion polls, 2022 will be different again: alongside Macron, two frontrunner candidates representing nationalist and extreme right ideas (Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour) could potentially receive 30% of the votes; a traditional right-wing candidate (Valérie Pécresse) is in a position to reach the second round again; meanwhile, the left has never been so divided.

As always in France, there is the possibility of a surprise additional candidate shaking things up at the last minute. Could that happen in 2022? A look back at history can help us understand how things might pan out this year.

De Gaulle’s new republic

In 1958, thirteen years after France’s liberation at the end of the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle returned to the French political stage and to power. He had been a fierce critic of the Fourth Republic, created in 1945, a regime characterised by the dominance of political parties over individual candidates. The conflict in Algeria handed De Gaulle the role of saviour of France once again.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic was inspired by his famous 1946 speech in Bayeux, and was largely written by Michel Debré, one of De Gaulle’s closest aides who would become his first prime minister. Under this new constitution, the president was elected by indirect universal suffrage – that is, via an electoral college, as in the US today.

In 1962, convinced that the president’s legitimacy had to be further strengthened, De Gaulle initiated a successful referendum to introduce a system of direct universal suffrage, where citizens vote for individual candidates.

This act thoroughly changed the political logic of France and its balance of power. Instead of voting for a party, people had to vote directly for a person. Instead of voting for a program, they had to vote for a leader. The French presidential election thus became hailed as an “encounter between a man and the people”.

The potential of a third candidate

In 1965, De Gaulle became the first president of the Fifth Republic to be elected by direct universal suffrage. He had to face a second round against the left-wing candidate François Mitterrand. De Gaulle won with 55.2% of the votes to Mitterand’s 44.8%.

De Gaulle’s new system also created a space for the emergence of a potential third candidate like Jean Lecanuet in 1965 or François Bayrou in 2007. These are usually symbolic, “small” candidates who have little chance of becoming president.

But the multiplication of these candidacies can still upset the battle between the two main frontrunners. In 1969, despite having five candidates out of seven in total, the left did not make it to the second round of voting. Instead, Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle’s former prime minister, won against the centre-right candidate Alain Poher, the leader of the senate who was serving as temporary president following De Gaulle’s resignation.

In 2002, the whole country expected a second round between the right-wing incumbent, Jacques Chirac, and the left-wing Lionel Jospin, Chirac’s prime minister, whom the president was forced to appoint after losing his majority at the Assemblée Nationale in legislative elections.

Early opinion polls introduced a “third man”, Jean-Pierre Chevènement a left-wing candidate who had served as a minister under Mitterrand and Jospin. He eventually received 5.33% of the votes in the first round with a modest sixth position.

Despite late opinion polls showing narrow difference between Jospin and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right candidate, many potential left-wing voters decided to cast ballots for minor left-wing candidates or to wait for the second round to take part in the election, assuming the second round would be a run-off between Jospin and Chirac.

But Jospin came in third with 16.18% of the vote while Le Pen scored 16.86%. Chirac eventually won the second round with 82% of the vote.

Fragile legitimacy

In 2007 and 2012, presidential elections seemed to be back to normal with second rounds coming down to a contest between Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate, and left-wing candidates Ségolène Royal in 2007 and François Hollande in 2012.

But the 2017 presidential election marked a turning point. As in 2002, the extreme right candidate, Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine Le Pen, managed to reach the second round. But Le Pen’s presence at this stage of the final presidential race did not produce the national crisis witnessed by her father’s success in 2002, showing how the far-right had become normalised in the intervening years. None of the traditional French political parties reached the second round and Emmanuel Macron was able to win without their support.

With four candidates (Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, Jean-Luc Mélenchon) receiving between 20% and 24% of the votes in the first round of the 2017 election, the legitimacy that De Gaulle wanted to give to the direct universal suffrage process appeared fragile and has been highly contested since by Macron’s opponents.

The limits of direct universal suffrage

What will happen this year? It seems that 2022 might reinforce the trend set up in the last presidential election. With none of the left-wing candidates in a position to compete for the two top spots and the spread of extreme-right ideas among the voters, the traditional right v left opposition seems a distant memory. A candidate defending nationalist far-right ideas could reach the second round for the second time in a row.

On one hand, the 2017 and 2022 elections call into question the system inspired by De Gaulle and the legitimacy of the president in a system where the splintering of traditional parties has led the concept of a “third man” or “third woman” to become obsolete.

On the other, a candidate positioned outside of the main French political parties can be carried to a presidential victory and a majority at the Assemblée Nationale just as Macron did in 2017, which could be seen as the ultimate vindication of the third candidate theory.

If calls for a change of the system of direct universal suffrage and for a Sixth Republic regularly bubble up, French people’s aspiration to a more participatory democracy seems to show their limits when it comes to electing their president.

Ultimately, while French people may want to have their say about everything, they also want a leader who decides, takes responsibility and makes decisions. Despite the fluctuations within the political system of recent years, the tradition instigated by De Gaulle back in 1962 remains strong to this day, even if the main players are different.

Olivier Guyottot
Enseignant-chercheur en stratégie et en sciences politiques,
INSEEC Grande École


* Published in print edition on 18 February 2022

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