By Charles Matseke and Koffi Kouakou
Don't count her out yet. But don’t hold your breath either. Marine le Pen, the firebrand far-right leader of the Rassemblement National Party, is breathing down incumbent President Emmanuel Macron’s neck in the run-off to the French presidential election today.
So say the recent opinion polls. Strangely, you would not have a clue if you visited the French embassy website in Pretoria or checked our local news media. There is hardly any mention of this year’s French presidential election.
Rightly so, swamped in the global media headlines, the heightened international attention on the war in Ukraine overshadows it. So, what’s at stake? Today the French are heading to the ballots to elect their president. This is the first round. And should no candidate win a majority of the vote, a run-off will be held between the top two candidates on April 24.
Interestingly, opinion polls tell the story of a repeat of the preceding 2017 presidential election as a “Macron v Le Pen 2.0”. According to an opinion poll of April 4-6 by Ipsos-Sopra Steria, four out of the 12 official candidates are leading in voter preferences.
Incumbent and republican president Macron, of La République en Marche, who is running for a second term, leads with 27%. He is followed by the right-wing firebrand Le Pen of Rassemblement National formerly known as the National Front, with 22%.
Then follow leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of La France insoumise, with 17% and far-right Éric Zemmour, of Reconquête a recently founded political party in 2021, with 8.5%. Opinion polls give generic trends about the mood of voters, but they can be manipulative and misleading. In recent years, in the US and the UK, they have been inaccurate.
The elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson attest to such misleading opinion polls. Therefore opinion polls must be taken with caution. So, while Macron and Le Pen are in the lead, Mélenchon could be a surprising first-round winner given the deep dissatisfaction of French voters with Macron and farright candidates. He inspires a middle-of-the-ground and centre-left candidacy that might appeal to last-minute French voters.
Le Pen, a serial presidential candidate, who ran unsuccessfully in 2012 and 2017, is hoping to win by a squeaker as she tries to appeal to French voters’ anti-immigrants, antiNato and anti-EU sentiments. She came third in 2012 with 17.9% of the vote turnover in the first round and second in the 2017 elections with just 21.3% in the first round, which rose to 33.9% in the second round.
While these figures and the story they tell may not mean much, the outcomes of the French presidential elections are important to Africa. They have implications for Africa, no matter the winner. When elected, each of these candidates will have to face a fast-changing Africa where new geopolitics are shaping regional powers.
A renewed scramble for Africa is under way. The global competition for Africa-friendly partnerships is growing. China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Middle Eastern and many nations are making Africa a preferred destination for global power play.
As such, France will have to redefine and apply a more realistic and win-win Africa foreign policy, far-right president or not. In general, the perception of the France-Africa relationship is fraught with suspicion and dissatisfaction. Rightly so.
From a mixed colonial to a dubious modern times record, France has acted as a hegemon in Africa, especially in her former Frenchspeaking colonies. The mixed record continues and has yet to change although successive elected French presidents have promised to do so.
The winner of this election will face enormous legacy issues in Africa. First at home. France faces social turmoil with the gilets jaunes (the yellow vest movement since Macron was elected president in 2017.
Macron’s tempestuous pension and wealth tax cut reforms have angered a socially conscious French citizen whose no-go retirement guarantees are sacrosanct. Far-right candidates Le Pen and Zemmour have constantly made anti-immigrant and Islamophobic speeches during their campaigns, created a toxic and polarising social atmosphere of xenophobia in France.
Zemmour’s political campaign manifesto has sour implications for Africa. It makes immigration and security central to his followers. He promises the French nationalists that, if elected, he would create a Ministry of “Re-Immigration” that would deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants, especially Africans, over his five-year term.
Second and abroad. French foreign policy must brace up from uneasy global power competition. The China and Russia in Africa factors will remain dominant features of the new treacherous geopolitical landscape in Africa.
This competition is creating a bitter animosity between Macron and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bears on the French presidential campaign as the media coverage focuses on the ongoing war.
Macron’s polling improved recently because Le Pen and Zemmour were made to explain their historic praising statements of the Russian president. Furthermore, the sanctions against Russia worsened the relationship between the two presidents, Macron and Putin.
France’s new president must deal urgently with pending diplomatic crises in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, where Russia is present, and particularly in Mali, where Malian rebuke of France has harmed their relationship. So, when elected, Macron, a mature president, Le Pen or Mélenchon will have to re-engineer France’s relationship with Africa, fast.
* Matseke is a PhD candidate in International Relations and Researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg.
** Kouakou is Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg