Useful, efficient, vital? Tactical voting in the 2022 French presidential elections
Author: Sarah Ledoux
The French electorate voted for Emmanuel Macron (27.85%) and Marine Le Pen (23.15%) in the first round of the 2022 presidential election. One is the incumbent president (Macron), who set a record in French politics by joining the campaign 38 days before the election, later than the previous historical precedents set by de Gaulle and Mitterrand (high profile politicians who inspire considerable respect from the right and left respectively). The other (Le Pen) is the leader of the Rassemblement national, previously known as the Front national, a party recognised for its populist discourse and far-right values. Since Marine Le Pen was elected leader in 2011, the party has undergone an image makeover, to reduce its ties with fascism and antisemitism, and to attract the disenfranchised post-2008 recession electorate (notably followers of the leaderless gilet-jaune movement that led to protests and riots).
On the 10th of April, Emmanuel Macron became the victor of the first round of national elections. These results are somewhat unsurprising, following the same pattern as the 2017 elections, when Macron, a young ‘outsider’ centrist candidate beat Le Pen, a far-right populist career campaigner who also presents herself as an ‘outsider’, having never held a position in national government (yet spending much of her career in positions of local and regional government, as well as in the European Parliament). Circumstances of socio-political division among the French electorate are similar to 2017, but the current situation is vastly different. Not only has the country experienced the drastic effects of the Covid-19 epidemic and witnessed the crisis in Ukraine, but French voters have experienced five years of a Macron presidency. Within the first two years of his mandate, Macron’s disapproval scores rose to 68%, due to the prioritisation of pro-business and pro-banking policies, as well as unpopular pension reform attempts and increased petrol taxes that ignited the gilet-jaune movement in November 2018. However, his public opinion ratings somewhat recovered following his management of the pandemic and Ukrainian crisis, with disapproval rates stabilising to 54% during the 2022 campaign. Therefore, despite his ‘right-wing’ turn, Macron successfully regained public support during moments of crisis, where he showed stoic and stern leadership, and encouraged national solidarity.
But was it this context that made the result of the first round of the French 2022 presidential election so predictable? Or is there something more institutionally indicative to this trend?
A crucial feature of the French electoral system is that presidential candidates typically struggle to obtain a large percentage of popular support in the first round. Usually, two candidates face each other in the second round to obtain over 50 percent of the vote, unless one of them reaches a simple majority in the first round (to this day, this has only occurred in the fifth republic’s first presidential election in 1958, who elected de Gaulle with 78.5%). The purpose of this design was originally to allow the electorate to ‘vote in favour of who they really supported’ in the first round, and ‘vote against who they disliked’ in the second one. But in the recent past, the second round has elicited strong concerns in the centrist electorate, when the far-right has proceeded to the second round. France witnessed this pattern in the 2002 election, when Jacques Chirac faced Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father) in the second round, and again in 2017 and 2022, where Emmanuel Macron has had to compete against Marine Le Pen.
The return of this moderate versus far-right run-off scenario has generated a hype around tactical voting slogans, such as ‘useful vote’, ‘efficient vote’ and ‘vital vote’, instrumentalised by some parties and picked up by the press. It is important to note that this year’s campaign was particularly divided, with 12 candidates in the first round, and where the two previously mainstream parties, the centre-right Les Républicains (LR, previously UMP) and the centre-left Parti Socialiste (PS) received some of their lowest scores in history (4.78% and 1.26%). Rallying the electoral troops was therefore fundamental in the 2022 first round. Below, the campaign slogans on tactical voting are briefly discussed, with the aim of highlighting how much the electoral choice has become a question of strategy.
The buzzword ‘useful vote’ was the most common slogan that appeared in recent French presidential campaigns (France24, 2022). The objective being that the voter should opt for the most tolerable candidate that was likely to win the necessary 15-20 percent band of votes to make it past the first round. This approach is known as the ‘realist’ vote that supports viable candidates, instead of voting for candidates who poll below 5 percent. While the ‘useful vote’ is described as a strategic approach, it is also a fear-mongering one. It encourages supporters of smaller moderate parties to abandon their favoured candidates, with the objective of excluding the larger, potentially menacing parties, from the second round.
Vote efficace (de bon sense, et concret)
The ‘efficient vote’, a phrase coined during the 2022 race by Jean-Luc Mélenchon –the leading far-left candidate–, mirrors the concept of ‘useful vote’, in reference to a united left-wing vote under his party, La France insoumise (rather than the previously mainstream centre-left party, the Parti socialiste). The ‘efficient vote’ remains a tactical approach, but Mélenchon preferred it over the term ‘useful vote’, proclaiming that a ‘useless vote’ is nonsensical because the usefulness of a vote should not be up for debate (France24, 2022). Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also used the terms ‘common sense vote’ and ‘concrete vote’, as alternate buzzwords. Clearly, they worked, as Mélenchon united a large portion of the French left-wing electorate, coming in close third last Sunday, with 21.95% of the vote. The remaining left-wing candidates found themselves in sub-10 percent ballot results, with the second most popular left-wing candidate, Yannick Jadot, representing the environmentalist Europe Écologie Les Verts party, only obtaining 4.63 percent.
The ‘vital vote’ was adopted by new far-right leader Éric Zemmour, the candidate who became Marine Le Pen’s rival to attract the disenfranchised right-wing (Le Figaro, 2022). A controversial television pundit, Zemmour was an unexpected up-and-rising candidate during the presidential campaign, who polled as high as Le Pen (16%) in February this year, only to win 7 percent of the vote in the first round. Proposing Trump-like policies, he used inflammatory speech around issues of immigration, sexism and disabilities, and was accused of sexual misconduct months before the election (Politico, 2022c).
Other slogans appeared during the French presidential campaign, for example, the ‘reason and heart vote’ vote de la raison et du cœur (Marine Le Pen) or the ‘convictions vote’ vote de convictions (Yannick Jadot) (Libération, 2022). But regardless of the choice of ‘vote’ slogan, the campaign was mired by candidates’ encouraging the electorate of tactical voting for the first round election.
Another phenomenon in this election was the level of vote abstention, which reached over a quarter of the eligible electorate (26.31%). This is higher than previous years, albeit only by a few percentage points (The Conversation, 2022). It occurred due to several contextual factors, such as holding the election close to the spring holidays, and the shared sentiment that the election was not going to change the current state of politics in France. There also were structural factors, such as the issue of non-automatic registration when people change residence, or the lower likelihood of registration rates in under-favoured regions and neighbourhoods (such as France’s overseas territories, regions such as Lorraine and Pas-de-Calais and Parisian neighbourhoods such as Seine-Saint-Denis) (France Culture, 2022). Nevertheless, only 1.12% of voters voted ‘blank’, suggesting that most of the voters who did mobilise to ballot boxes were sufficiently engaged with the political climate.
The results and turnout of the 2022 election point towards a divided, somewhat uninspired, and largely tactical French electorate. They also provide the opportunity to reflect on the implementation of electoral theory to the French case. In their analysis of Condorcet and Arrow’s electoral paradoxes, Balinski and Laraki (2007) once argued in favour of a majoritarian judgement (MJ) system in France. Under this system, voters would be required to grade each candidate individually, amounting to a median high-score derived from an entire electorate (which must add up to an odd number). The method discourages tactical voting because it provides citizens with a wider range of options to evaluate candidates (by having to score them on a six-point scale), even though it does not entirely eliminate strategic voting. What is desirable in the proposed MJ electoral system is that voters would presumably follow their ideological preferences over the ‘least bad option’. Yet, without any public reckoning of electoral laws of France, tactical voting persists (see Elgie, 2005). And thus far, the political debate on electoral reform has not made headlines.
Tactical voting in the 2022 French election was also accentuated by two additional elements. First, it was exacerbated by low party-identification rates among the electorate (Riera, 2016). This occurs when voters do not strongly align with any campaign candidate, which increases their rational choice to cast a vote for the option of ‘lesser evil’. This theory resonates with the previously mentioned uninspired sentiment that preceded the first round election, which minutely increased abstention. Second, the influence of opinion polls continues to be an important concern in tactical voting. Minority partisans perceiving low support for their political preference are discouraged, leading opinion polls to dampen already limited support in a fragmented multi-party systems (Lang & Engel Lang, 1984). However, this factor was less applicable to the 2022 French election, where opinion polls reported considerable fluctuations before the vote, particularly for far-leaning (left and right) candidates (something that mainstream pollsters generally do not support).
Current opinion polls for the upcoming second-round on Sunday 24th of April favour Macron, giving him a majority ranging from 53 to 55 percent (Politico, 2022b). If the electorate follows this route, it will be the result of using a tactical ‘useful vote’ against Le Pen, setting France on course for another five years with Macron. Yet compared to his previous mandate, Macron’s executive privileges might be significantly diminished. This is because the French electorate will shortly vote again in June 2022, this time for the 577 members of the National Assembly. Historically, the French have typically voted in line with the presidential vote, giving the president a legislative majority, and providing the executive the power to rule without much political resistance. This time around however, it is probable that legislative results will not give En Marche a similar majority to 2017, showing the true extent of the French electorate’s sentiment towards Macron’s previous quinquennat (five-year mandate). History has shown second mandates tend to require more manoeuvring to include opposition in leadership. Both Mitterand in 1993 and Chirac in 2002 were hard-pressed to choose prime ministers from the opposition. Although Macron has worked with prime ministers from the centre-right, it is unlikely he will choose anyone from the far-right as a prime minister in his second mandate. Only time will tell whether the French voters’ preferences are indeed more spread among the party-system spectrum than they were in 2017. In any case, it will most likely make for a challenging second mandate for Macron.
Sarah Ledoux is a PhD student in Politics at The University of Manchester. Her thesis focuses on legislators’ policy responsiveness to citizen expression on social media. More specifically, she is interested in the contextual and institutional factors that enable online interactions, and the stages at which they influence policymaking. Her research currently draws from case studies in Brazil and Mexico. Broader research interests include online political behaviour, e-governance and AI in public policy.
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Balinski, M. & Laraki, R. (2007). Le jugement majoritaire: L’expérience d’Orsay. Commentaire, 118, 413-419. https://doi.org/10.3917/comm.118.0413
Elgie, R. (2005). France: Stacking the Deck. In M. Gallagher & P. Mitchell (Eds) The Politics of Electoral Systems, (pp. 119-136). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lang, K., & Engel Lang, G. (1984). The Impact of Polls of Public Opinion. The Annals of the American Academy, 472(1), p.129-142.
Politico (2022a). https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/
Riera, P. (2016). Tactical Voting. Oxford Handbooks Online: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935307.013.55
The Conversation (2022). https://theconversation.com/la-dynamique-spectaculaire-du-vote-utile-181044
Image credits: open source