The economic consequences of the war in Ukraine are weighing on French voters. Soaring energy prices are exacerbating the inflation that accompanied the recovery of the French economy from the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two weeks before the first round, the “social populist” strategy of Marine Le Pen, namely the positioning of the left economic forces, associated with populist and nationalist rhetoric, implemented for ten years by the president of the RN, may turn out to be winning. political stake.
Economic issues stand out as the dominant theme of the campaign. According to the latest wave of the CEVIPOF-Sciences Po Paris pre-election poll, conducted March 21-24, 58% of French people say that prices and purchasing power will have a significant impact on their votes in April, ie. an increase of 6% compared with the beginning of March.
Purchasing power issues come to the fore in the campaign
If the war in Ukraine still worries the French, then fears are somewhat fading: a third (34%) of those surveyed say they are “very worried” about the war, at the beginning of March there were 43%. The military conflict in Ukraine also seems to be losing its weight in choosing votes: only 23% of our respondents say it will affect their decision, which is 10% less than immediately after the start of the Russian invasion.
The focus is now on the economic impact of the Ukrainian crisis, with 43% of respondents saying they are “very concerned,” down from the previous wave on March 10-14, but still indicative of a high level of concern. among the French. Fears of a wider conflict or nuclear war are comparatively lower at 33% and 28%, down 6% and 7% respectively since early March.
In light of these data, the result of the first round of the presidential election will largely depend on the reactions of various candidates to the issues of purchasing power, price increases and protecting the French from the blows of the war economy.
Anticipating the “crisis that is to come”, Jean Casex’s government has already emphasized the importance of supporting the French economy by developing an emergency “resilience” plan. After “by all means” during the Covid-19 pandemic, this new €7 billion plan is designed to help businesses and households cope with rising energy prices in the wake of economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia.
Right – different economic strategies
If Emmanuel Macron still seems to be dominating the first round battle for now – with 28% of intent to vote, slightly lower in the latest wave of our poll – economic issues have been one of the keys to the second square battle. .
On the right, the economic strategies of the three main contenders diverge. In fact, the main directions of the campaign of Valerie Pekress, Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen were determined months ago, long before the start of the war in Ukraine. But as the first round approaches, the Ukrainian crisis creates different opportunities for each of these candidates.
On an economic level, Eric Zemmour and Valerie Pecresse defend a program with a liberal tone, marked by a fight against “aid” in the first or a reduction in the number of civil servants in the LR candidate. Both are also in favor of raising the statutory retirement age to 64 for E. Zemmour and 65 for V. Pecresse, a reform that nearly 7 out of 10 French people still reject.
In the midst of a price and purchasing power storm, this liberal orientation clashes with existing, especially among voters, expectations of greater social protection, health care, and redistribution: in our study, power buying is an important issue for 63% of employees and 67% of workers to vote on.
These social issues are at the heart of Marine Le Pen’s campaign. Faced with her two main competitors on the right, the National Rally candidate chose a different economic path early on, emphasizing purchasing power, health, public service protection, and redistribution.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the National Rally candidate promised a “purchasing power shock”, promising to “protect our people” and “give their money back to the French”.
This speech, with a strong social connotation, quickly allowed Marine Le Pen to divert attention from her pro-Russian positions and support for Vladimir Putin in the past, to refocus her campaign on the economic consequences of the Ukrainian conflict in everyday life French
Marine Le Pen or “social-populist” strategy
Moreover, it allows the RN candidate to assert its credibility as a “purchasing power” candidate among the popular categories and the middle class most concerned about the economic consequences of the crisis.
A statistical analysis of Marine Le Pen’s presidential project shows that the “redistribution” component makes up at least two-thirds (66%) of its economic program: the highest percentage since the NF’s electoral breakthrough in the mid-1980s. combines all social or economic measures of Keynesian orientation, based on demand, social protection and redistribution.
The Marine Le Pen program offers, among other things, VAT reductions, wage increases, tax breaks and free transport for young workers. This all-out redistributive attack on purchasing power and health is aimed primarily at the working class and young workers who make up the bulk of the RN constituency.
The eighth wave of the CEVIPOPF poll confirms the importance of these electoral segments for Marine Le Pen. The latter ranks first in voting intentions among 25-34-year-olds with 22% of the vote, ahead of Emmanuel Macron. The president of the RN would also win quite widely in the first round among workers (34%) and employees (22%).
Another target: retirees, who are still less inclined to support the RN – only 13% of them would vote for its president. For the elderly, Marine Le Pen promises a revaluation of pensions and a minimum age for old age, as well as the abolition of taxes on direct inheritance for low-income families and members of the middle class.
At the same time, the RN moved away from more liberal economic stances on civil servants, deregulation, or the rejection of the welfare state. These politicians make up only 21% of the 2022 program, compared to 35% five years ago. Under Jean-Marie Le Pen in the mid-1980s, they were almost 80%.
Finally, it retained its roots in economic nationalism (13% of the program). Marine Le Pen continues to defend national economic sovereignty, protectionism, the rejection of free trade, or the preference of national companies over free competition from the European Union.
This left-wing economic positioning, linked to the traditional populist and nationalist rhetoric of the RN, which pits the people against “globalist” economic and political elites, outlines the “social populism” that today very clearly distinguishes Marine Le Pen from his other competitors on the right, including Eric Zemmour: Reconquista candidate’s economic program combines a total of 43% liberal-oriented measures, more than double that of the RN president.
The social populist project of Marine Le Pen is not new. I started 10 years ago, immediately after coming to the head of the FN. After the financial crisis of 2008 and the sovereign debt crisis of 2011, the National Front adopted a “Keynesian” program of public spending, expansion of public services and, already now, purchasing power against the austerity imposed by the François Fillon government. In 2012, 59% of the FN’s economic proposals were already leaning towards the economic left, breaking with the more liberal party orientation of the Jean-Marie Le Pen era (see Chart 2).
Marine Le Pen’s bet
During Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term, Marine Le Pen worked to build her social-populist image, joining the left and labor unions several times. In late 2019, she spoke out strongly against pension reform. In March 2021, the RN president also denounced the government’s unemployment insurance reform, asking Emmanuel Macron to put an end to it. “social bleeding”.
The latest wave of our electoral poll confirms that this is a potentially winning bet: Marine Le Pen is gaining 17.5% of the vote there (+3 points since the beginning of March), well ahead of Eric Zemmour (12%) and Valerie Pecresse (10%).
At a meeting in Saint-Martin-Lacaussade on March 25, Marine Le Pen reiterated her populist vision of the duel she hopes to have against Emmanuel Macron, pitting the “big” against the “small”, the “people” against the “chosen ones”. “Between Emmanuel Macron and us,” she said, “the choice is between the power of money, which benefits the few, and the purchasing power, which benefits all.”
The rise in fuel prices associated with the invasion of Russia echoes strongly with Lepinist social-populist rhetoric and is giving Marine Le Pen an advantage today. Once again playing small versus big, the RN leader proposed on March 10 to “repeal the increases” in fuel taxes between 2015 and 2018 and offset these cancellations with “an exclusive tax on (oil groups)”. .
A CEVIPOF poll shows war-related economic fears are strongest among Marine Le Pen’s electoral supporters, with 53% saying they are “very worried” about the economy, compared to 43% nationwide. At least 69% of Marine Le Pen voters say purchasing power is one of the factors that will matter most in their first-round presidential vote, compared to 56% of Valerie Pecresse’s electorate and only 47%. Eric Zemmour voters.
Defending the socio-populist agenda long before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Marine Le Pen made a political bet that the growing socio-economic fears of the electorate could give her a decisive advantage over her main competitors. For now, the polls seem to prove him right.
TOResearch Fellow in Political Science, Sciences Po.
The original version of this article was published in English.