This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
When Donald Trump’s presidential campaign culminated in victory in 2016, reporting on elections involving the far right changed forever, especially when it comes to the level of trust in the polls and the foundations of Western democracy. Other aspects of the coverage, however, remained the same. Observing this year’s presidential elections in France and reporting on them would have been very different had the last two rounds of presidential elections in the United States not happened the way they did.
In the beginning, many of the leading English-language international news organizations were not that interested in the elections. Later on, they spent months focusing almost exclusively on the first presidential run of Éric Zemmour, an extreme-right populist, in a way similar to the attention Trump received during his campaign for the 2016 election. Those news organizations largely ignored another populist, the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Finally, they released a river of analysis focusing on the traditional far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, who came in second.
The media now knows that it should never undermine the threat of far-right sentiments and those who stir them with success, notwithstanding their apparent unelectability in the early stages. The polls were being dealt with extremely carefully, but they did not slow down the Zemmour-Le Pen take-producing machine.
It’s good not to be complacent and not to place too much trust in polls, lest we have a repeat of 2016 in the United States. But there is always room for more nuance in the coverage of each country’s elections.
In France, unlike the United States, re-electing the incumbent is far from the de facto rule, and when voters allow it, it’s almost always done very begrudgingly. In that light we can say that Emmanuel Macron did very well despite being vastly unpopular and the fact that abstention rates have increased significantly. On Sunday, he was re-elected as president for another “quinquennat,” or five-year term, with 59% of the vote.
But this was also the third time in the history of the French Fifth Republic that a far-right candidate reached the second round of the presidential elections. Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party, was the finalist in question the last time as well (and faced off against Macron).
This time, she came closer than ever to becoming the next resident of the Élysée Palace. The international media, much as with Trump and Brexit, did not want this to happen. The way many of them voiced that was by constantly writing about the dangers of a Zemmour and later a Le Pen presidency, and little else.
What was clear from the outset of the elections was that Éric Zemmour would dominate the local, regional, and international coverage in the lead up to the first round of the elections, which he did. Several correspondents were concerned that they were being pushed too hard to write about Zemmour in order to catch up with competing media outlets. The media gave Zemmour and his message of hate their undivided attention, intending to warn against the perils of a Zemmour presidency, of course, but at the risk of portraying him as more popular than he actually is.
Zemmour has been convicted three times: in 2011, for inciting racial discrimination; in 2018 for inciting religious hatred toward Muslims; and in 2022 for inciting racial hatred. He is the product of a changing sphere of French media, especially French TV. The more progressive and moderate currents in the country seem to have lost the battle for this medium. Conservative, Fox-style channels with vast audiences grew substantially in recent years and generated phenomena like Zemmour. Among them is notably “CNews, which manufactures fears, and BFMTV, which nurtures them,” as a writer in Le Monde Diplomatique put it last year.
When the day of the first round came, Zemmour got only 7% of the vote. The candidate ahead of him, Jean Luc Mélenchon, received 22% — some 5.2 million votes more than Zemmour and only a little over 420,000 votes behind Le Pen. But the international media attention given to Mélenchon was nowhere near that which Zemmour had got.
The hashtag #StopOmertaMelenchon kept coming up on Twitter. Even if the notion of omertà — a word borrowed from the Mafia code of silence to mean a premeditated decision not to talk about something — does not apply in the case of Mélenchon’s bid, it certainly made those who support him and others wonder why such a big candidate was getting such little attention compared with others in national, and virtually nothing in international, media.
It is a worrying sign that even Zemmour, who fell well short of reaching the second round of the elections, was able to defeat the candidates of the traditional and established parties in the country, especially those of the Socialist Party and the Republicans, with the candidate of the latter reduced to pleading for donations the day after her defeat as her extremely low score in the first round did not make her eligible for a refund of campaign expenses.
In the end, when Zemmour, Mélenchon and eight other candidates were defeated, the spotlight went back to Macron and Le Pen, with the chances of the latter in defeating the first narrowing steadily until she too was ultimately defeated.
But it was interesting that, until the last hour, outlets like the New York Times maintained the barrage of Le Pen stories coming to the extent that some of their headlines were being described as “a dangerous obsession.”
On the other hand, some hastened to say that Le Pen softened her tone this time as she and her party were the ones becoming more mainstream. But despite Le Pen’s gains from capitalizing on the rejection of the ideas of Zemmour, deemed more extremist than hers, and the discontent with Macron, she is still the same old Le Pen for many. She still harbors those dangerous ideas on immigration and Islam. The parliamentarians and officials who support Le Pen are still eager to get a chance to turn them into laws. The hardline Le Pen supporters are still yearning for an environment to bring out the worst in them and others.
News organizations need to remember that data we have access to today, including polls, is still an important factor to be considered when reporting on a matter as serious as presidential elections of a country with a big role to play in Europe and other parts of the world.
Media in the United States and the United Kingdom have a lesser role in shaping the result of French elections compared with local media, of course, and I write that not to say that they should not be responsible as if they were but that they have the ability to use their understanding of their audiences in order to provide a more nuanced and fair coverage of those elections.
A second term for Macron was always the likeliest possibility, and that should have called for more focus on what it means for France, rather than merely covering him with a messianic cloak by focusing on his role as the only bulwark against a far-right presidency. Despite his neglect by the media, Mélenchon could have been there at the presidential debate table instead of Le Pen, probably far outpreforming her in challenging the incumbent president’s plans and policies even though the latter would still be most likely to win (even likelier than against Le Pen).
All that taken into consideration while not forcing journalists to veer away from their duty to convey the fears of the people and warn against the dangers of fascism could have made for altogether healthier and more realistic coverage. These elections showed us that we still have many lessons to learn despite the cumulative experience covering the rise of the right.