Friday

23rd Apr 2021

Opinion

How Le Pen may beat Macron

  • Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron face off during the 2017 election. In final round of voting, Le Pen received nearly 34 percent of the vote - and is on course to do better in 2022 (Photo: Reuters)

In recent months, French president Emmanuel Macron has begun turning towards the right with regard to Islam in France.

While this may be concerning to many for any number of ethical, moral, and human right reasons, this move is also troubling because of what it means for the continued rise of the radical-right party, Rassemblement National (RN), and its leader Marine Le Pen.

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In October 2020, Macron gave a speech in which he warned of "Islamist separatism," arguing that this is an ideology among Muslims in France that breaks with the values of the Republic and claims that adherents to this faction of Islam see their "own laws [as] superior to the Republic's."

In response to this concern, in February, the French National Assembly, led by Macron's La République en Marche (LREM) party passed a bill called "Supporting Respect For the Principles of the Republic."

This bill, which is expected to pass the Senate in March, will oversee many aspects of social and religious life in France.

While it does not specifically mention Islam, many in the Muslim community feel that they are being targeted, and there may be something to this.

One of the bill's main proponents, interior minister Gérald Darmanin has publicly stated that the government needs to "save [French] children from the clutches of the Islamists," and has even gone so far as to accuse Le Pen of being soft on radical Islam.

To understand how this shift by Macron and his party helps the radical-right Rassemblement National, one must understand how political parties interact with one another within a system.

Through both rhetoric and actions, Macron appears to be moving closer to the radical-right position of the RN and Le Pen.

In political science jargon, we would say Macron and his party are "accommodating" the positions of the RN—or moving one's party towards the position of another party to stem the possibility of losing votes.

The conventional wisdom on accommodation is that Macron would draw in some radical-right supporters, which would hurt the RN in the next election. However, this conventional wisdom ignores issue ownership, an important concept in political science scholarship.

This research shows that voters connect certain issues to specific parties. Voters might think one party is "tough on crime" or the economy does better when a certain party is in charge.

When a party owns an issue, its electoral strategy changes.

Moving positions on an issue to please the largest number of voters is no longer important. Rather, a party can win votes in an election simply by increasing the public salience of its owned issue. If a party can get a voter to think about its owned issue, the likelihood that voters cast ballots for the issue-owning party increases.

However, the issue-owning party isn't the only actor that can drive public attention on an issue; other parties can as well.

'Ownership'

In a recent study I conducted with Sophia Hunger (WZB Berlin Social Science Center), we find that when a non-issue owning party accommodates the position of a party that does own that issue, public concern about that issue increases.

If one party tries to take a similar position on an issue as another party that already owns the issue, the public starts to pay greater attention to that issue and this could lead voters to abandon the shifting party and vote for the issue-owning party.

As an example, a green party might own the issue of the environment. If that party drives public attention to climate change, more voters will think about the environment when voting. Thus, they are more likely to vote for that green party.

But if a centre-left party tries to make an election about environmental issues, it can actually drive voters to the greens rather than attract green voters to the centre.

This fits with research I have published with Maurits Meijers (Radboud University), in which we found that when centrist parties become more opposed to the EU in the face of an established radical-right party, the centrist party loses votes.

Further, a study by Werner Krause (WZB Berlin Social Science Center), Denis Cohen (University of Mannheim), and Tarik Abou-Chadi (University of Zurich) finds that accommodation of the radical-right by mainstream parties leads to increasing vote share for the radical-right.

When issue ownership is taken into account, elections become more about the public attention to issues and which party owns those issues.

This matters for the 2022 French presidential election, because in France issues such as immigration, protection of the national way of life, and opposition to multiculturalism are owned by the RN.

The recent statements and actions by Macron and LREM indicate a shift towards the position of the RN and raises the public importance of RN-owned issues.

As public concern and attention to these issues grows, the chance that voters are thinking about issues owned by the RN at the 2022 election increases.

This is particularly concerning as the radical-right has been gaining in power over the last few decades. Le Pen finished second in the first round of the 2017 presidential election. In the second round, Le Pen received nearly 34 percent of the vote against Macron.

Gaining in opinion polls

Early polling for the 2022 election further shows that Le Pen may be gaining.

In 2017, she garnered about 21 percent in the first round. She is now regularly polling in the mid-20s. Additionally, in a head-to-head competition in the second round, Le Pen is polling in the mid to high-40s, which would be another marked improvement for the radical-right.

Given the importance of issue ownership and the public attention to those owned issues, Macron's decision to engage with issues traditionally owned by the radical-right and pursuing Islamophobic and xenophobic policies could strengthen the RN further.

This is a dangerous strategy for Macron given how close the polls indicate the 2022 election could be. It doesn't necessarily mean that we should be getting ready for a president Le Pen, but the research on issue ownership points to this being more likely.

Author bio

Christopher Williams is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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