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Election Conspiracy Theories Grow After Macron Victory

France is borrowing claims of stolen elections from the U.S. right.

By , a Ph.D. candidate at American University, and , a Ph.D. candidate at American University’s School of International Service.
Parisians gather at Place de la République to protest against the election of Emmanuel Macron.
Parisians gather at Place de la République to protest against the election of Emmanuel Macron.
Parisians gather at Place de la République to protest against the election of France’s centrist incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, for a second five-year term in Paris on April 24. Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

On Sunday night, French President Emmanuel Macron (from La République En Marche! party) was reelected for another five-year mandate with a 17-point lead over his far-right competitor, Marine Le Pen (from the National Rally party). Le Pen conceded in a live televised speech shortly after the results were announced. In a near-simultaneous campaign email, she stated that “the ballot boxes have spoken and I respect their decision.”

A growing portion of her base disagrees.

Since early March, the idea that the French presidential election would be “stolen,” “falsified,” or “rigged” has been gaining momentum, particularly among the far right. Much of this language precisely imitates the “Stop the Steal” discourse instigated by then-U.S. President Donald Trump and his close followers in November 2020 after he was defeated by Joe Biden, leading to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Mostly visible on French far-right social media, these conspiracy theories have also been acknowledged and endorsed by a number of major first-round candidates.

On Sunday night, French President Emmanuel Macron (from La République En Marche! party) was reelected for another five-year mandate with a 17-point lead over his far-right competitor, Marine Le Pen (from the National Rally party). Le Pen conceded in a live televised speech shortly after the results were announced. In a near-simultaneous campaign email, she stated that “the ballot boxes have spoken and I respect their decision.”

A growing portion of her base disagrees.

Since early March, the idea that the French presidential election would be “stolen,” “falsified,” or “rigged” has been gaining momentum, particularly among the far right. Much of this language precisely imitates the “Stop the Steal” discourse instigated by then-U.S. President Donald Trump and his close followers in November 2020 after he was defeated by Joe Biden, leading to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Mostly visible on French far-right social media, these conspiracy theories have also been acknowledged and endorsed by a number of major first-round candidates.

Although this election cycle has already seen the diffusion of far-right political strategies from the United States to France, this assault on election integrity represents a major escalation—one with serious consequences for French democratic institutions.

France’s electoral integrity has rarely, if ever, been called into question in the country’s modern history. Even during the country’s last presidential campaign in 2017, whispers of fraud centered around some candidates’ misuse of funds—not the vote itself.

This election represents a definitive break with that past. According to an Ifop study with the Observatoire Reboot conducted in March, 14 percent of overall survey respondents said the April 10 and April 24 French presidential elections would be “rigged.” This figure doubled among self-identified Éric Zemmour and Le Pen voters, at 29 percent and 30 percent, respectively; by comparison, percentages among other candidates ranged from just 7 percent for Macron voters to 18 percent for Jean-Luc Mélenchon supporters. An additional 31 percent of overall respondents stated that they were unsure—leaving only a little more than half who were wholly confident that the election would be legitimate.

Claims of a rigged French election can be categorized into two camps: first, that Macron and the media were conspiring to make the rules of the campaign unplayable for other candidates; and second, more directly echoing U.S. “Stop the Steal” discourse, that widespread voter fraud would change the results of the election itself.

A number of first-round candidates endorsed the former idea. In January, far-right candidate Zemmour of the Reconquête party stated in a television interview that he has “doubts” concerning the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Just a few weeks later, at a rally in Metz, France, he became one of the first candidates to plant the seed of a stolen election in France: “Today, they are trying to steal the election from you. They want to reinstate the Le Pen-Macron match … this wrestling match where everything is rigged.”

Fellow far-right candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (from the Debout la France party) followed suit, repeatedly stating that the election would be “rigged” and had been “manipulated by Emmanuel Macron from A to Z.” Even Valérie Pécresse—representing the purportedly mainstream conservative Les Républicains (the party of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy)—joined in: “We’re not going to let them steal this election. … We have to remember 2017. That election was stolen from the right, and that’s the truth,” referring to then-Les Républicains candidate François Fillon’s investigation for misuse of campaign funds. “I believe that Emmanuel Macron is stealing this election.”

It’s important to note that Le Pen herself never directly used the words “stolen” or “rigged”; indeed, she even condemned Pécresse’s claims in March, stating, “I’m not going to be Biden’s Trump. I’ve never questioned the results of an election, and I won’t do it.” Her efforts to respect established norms—at least on the surface—follows her attempt to position her party as the “respectable” far-right option, rejecting its explicitly anti-system past.

While Le Pen never signaled that she would reject the results of the election, she did engage in some of the same delegitimizing rhetoric as her fellow candidates. A constant theme of National Rally gatherings was Macron’s refusal to participate in any pre-first-round debates against other candidates—despite the fact that no sitting French president has ever agreed to a debate until the runoffs. In her concession speech, she denounced the “unfair, brutal, and violent methods” she had been “subjected to” during the campaign. Observers also noted that she never explicitly acknowledged Macron as the victor of the election, as norms usually dictate.

This balancing act was well-understood by her followers. At Le Pen’s final rally in Arras, France, before the April 24 runoff, the idea of a “stolen election” hung heavy; according to one National Rally organizer: “We know that Macron is going to be reelected. The elections are rigged. … I’m not necessarily talking about vote tampering, but the whole system is with Macron.”

Online conspiracy theories about a stolen election go much further. One of the dominant narratives on French far-right social media is that U.S.-brand Dominion voting machines would be used to falsify the results by transferring votes for right-wing candidates to Macron. “Dominion” became a top trending topic on French Twitter on March 18 and March 19, with over 50,000 distinct posts over both days. For conspiracy theorists focused on Dominion, the specter of the 2020 U.S. presidential election is a constant refrain. According to one viral post: “Dominion will be in charge of counting votes for the presidential election. Yes, these are the same crooks that took care of rigging the American election in 2020.”

The problem with this theory is that Dominion does not operate in France, something the company recently reaffirmed. For the most part, France doesn’t use voting machines of any kind. The vast majority of voting is done by hand with paper ballots, which are then counted under the careful surveillance of delegates from each candidate and other election monitors.

Does this mean we’re going to see anything like a French Jan. 6? At this stage, it’s highly unlikely. Neither Le Pen nor any other candidate are organizing “Stop the Steal” rallies or attempting to overturn local results. The final count between Macron and Le Pen is also much wider than the one we saw between Biden and Trump (58.55 percent vs. 41.45 percent compared to 51.3 percent vs. 46.8 percent, respectively). Even if a candidate wanted to challenge the results, it’s geographically unclear where additional votes would come from. Although the “Stop the Steal” movement in the United States focused on decertifying results in a few key electoral college states, France’s system relies on the national popular vote.

Furthermore, key structural facilitators of political violence present in the United States are lacking in France. The United States is flooded with astronomical quantities of easily accessible small arms, whereas France has some of the strictest gun control laws in Europe. There are no French parallels to groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who gained years of experience in armed and/or violent contention throughout the 2010s. Finally, while U.S. extremist groups actively recruit and integrate significant numbers of military veterans—perhaps the most important mechanism in the transition to violent activism—this trend is absent in France.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences—or that the discourse of vote rigging will go away.

A growing chorus of commentators have also questioned whether Macron’s election can be considered legitimate, given the high rate of “blank” protest votes and low turnout, leading Le Monde’s editorial board to issue a warning about the dangers of “political decomposition” and radicalization.

In the days since the runoff, “#fraude” has continued to be one of the top trending topics on French Twitter—apparently fueled by an incident where France 2 accidentally broadcast for several minutes on election night that Le Pen had won. It remains uncertain where this rhetoric will lead or what it means in the broader picture of French democracy. What is clear, however, is that it’s not going away—and we may see the next test in a few weeks’ time.

The legislative elections set for June will determine the majority in the National Assembly as well as who becomes prime minister. These are now being referred to as the “third round” by activists on both the far left and right deeply dissatisfied with Macron’s policies. The structure of French legislative elections often produces representation widely disparate from parties’ vote shares, which is likely to amplify discourses of “rigged” and “stolen” elections. The reaction will be telling.

Kimberly Tower is a Ph.D. candidate at American University and a Fulbright scholar at CEVIPOF, Sciences Po.

Lucas Dolan is a Ph.D. candidate at American University’s School of International Service.

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