Politics & Society

Coalitions of Convenience

The US, France, and the Politics of Winning

In November 1988 at a campaign rally, President Ronald Reagan famously claimed: “I’m a former Democrat, and I have to say: I didn’t leave my party; my party left me.” The 2020 presidential election flipped the slogan, with many Republicans, disillusioned by their party under Trump’s leadership, becoming “Biden Republicans,” shifting the electoral balance once again. Joe Biden won over a portion of Republicans who did not support the direction their party was taking. Republican Voters Against Trump spent over $2 million on billboards in various swing states that clearly signaled opposition to the re-election of President Donald Trump.

What made these voters reject their own party? Biden’s approach to COVID-19, his belief in diplomacy, and his appeal to moderate conservatives. As former Trump voter Jay Copan, said. “I’m conservative. I value decency. I’m voting Joe Biden.” Like Copan, many Republicans craved a return to normalcy after four years of endless Twitter wars and exhausting political rhetoric. For moderate Democrats, Joe Biden’s appeal lay in his ability to convince supporters of progressive Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to vote for him. Many younger progressive voters were unconvinced that Biden was the right candidate for the presidency, believing change would be slow under his leadership. In an open letter from the Sunrise Movement (the organization behind initiatives such as the Green New Deal) they wrote: “For so many young people, going back to the way things were ‘before Trump’ isn’t a motivating enough reason to cast a ballot…”

Nevertheless, younger voters supported Biden overwhelmingly. At the peak of the election social media handles like Settle for Biden had millions of likes, comments and shares, making these youth groups a force to reckon with. Grassroots initiatives that targeted the younger, college-age demographic helped seal the deal for a 2020 Biden electoral win.

Across the Atlantic, French president Emmanuel Macron faces a bid for re-election on April 10, 2022. To gain support from both the right and left, Macron must do a lot of damage control. Much like President Biden, President Macron can only win with support from progressives and conservatives. In fact, Macron built his following on this very platform. In 2017, with his newly created party La Republique en Marche (often referenced to as En Marche!), he staked out a position that aligned neither with the left nor the right. Instead, he offered a centrist approach that veered left on some issues and right on others. Nicknamed a political “maverick,” he pushed for combating climate change while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of national security.

Macron comes to the 2022 election with five years of presidential experience. In 2017 the left largely supported him, but have since accused him of being too conservative. He also struggles to attract support from the right, with many saying he is too easy on issues like migration.

Several of Macron’s policy decisions, such as raising the price of gas, led to consequences like the Gilets Jaunes movement, and to many concluding that he is disconnected from the everyday struggles of ordinary French citizens. Strict COVID-19 lockdowns have also made him unpopular. In a recent bid to win more conservative votes, the National Assembly is now deliberating a bill that would ban all females under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public. Macron defended the bill as an attempt to stop the emergence of parallel societies, which “could destroy the French republic.” His support for the bill aroused intense international backlash and inspired social media campaigns like #HandsoffmyHijab. The polarization over hot-button issues like this have fed the far right, leading to the emergence of potential challengers like Eric Zemmour, a hard right political talk show star. Zenmour has not yet declared his candidacy, but if he does he could siphon votes from both President Macron and Marine le Pen of the far-right Front National. The most recent polling conducted by Harris Interactive shows Zemmour leading with 17 percent of the vote and Le Pen trailing him with 15 percent.

In the wake of these controversial policy decisions, Macron will find it difficult to strike a campaign balance that mirrors Joe Biden’s—attracting support from voters on both the left and the right. The nature of the campaign will depend primarily on who is running against him. If Marine Le Pen manages to maintain her place as Macron’s main rival, the battle is likely be fought over conservative votes. But the results of the June 2021 regional elections hint that this might not be the whole story. Record low voter turnout conveys the impression that the French public is exhausted by the current political climate. Furthermore, the center right party Les Republicains could prove to be a serious challenge to Le Pen and Macron in 2022, with candidates like Valerie Pecresse and Xavier Bertrand potential competitors for the presidency.

Macron will have to portray himself as a president for all, but in a highly politicized election environment this will be challenging. His 100-billion-euro stimulus plan will help to distance him from accusations that he is a president only for the rich. He can also point to his strong leadership in the EU, promoting French interests when he leads the European Council in the coming year. According to political journalist Yacine Arabaoui, Emmanuel Macron would like to succeed while remaining “le candidat du en même temps,” or the candidate who strives to accomplish everything “at the same time.” The problem is that if he attempts to stand for everything, he risks not standing for anything—especially if he is unable to secure an electoral win.


Chloe Laird

Manager, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation