Macron Is In Danger
France’s self-styled “Jupiter” must return to earth if he is to prevent the far right from claiming the presidency.
It has been just five years since Emmanuel Macron, then a brash ex-economy minister with no electoral experience, accomplished his two-year stealth takeover of French politics to become, at age 39, the country’s youngest elected president.
Luck had a lot to do with it. The spectacular collapse of both of France’s two traditional parties opened the way for Macron’s explosive rise, which he engineered with a mix of brains, hutzpah, good PR, and a dash of betrayal.
This time, Macron looks set to succeed again—though the race between him and his top rival, Marine Le Pen on the far-right, has been tightening in the last weeks. In a repeat of 2017, the two emerged the winners in the first round of voting held on Sunday April 10, Macron with 27.8 percent and Le Pen with 23.1 percent of the vote. They will now move to a final head-to-head on April 24.
Macron’s long-anticipated reelection campaign got off to a late start because he was busy through much of February trying mightily—and ultimately unsuccessfully—to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. At first it seemed as though he might benefit from a Ukraine bump, the kind of national support leaders typically get in times of war. Macron’s diplomatic skills—his command of the issues, his ambition, and his youthful energy—put him, and France, center stage as war clouds gathered over Europe. None of the other presidential candidates could pretend to match his credibility as an international player.
But in the last weeks of the campaign, French voters turned their eyes inwards onto their own anxieties about inflation, particularly high fuel prices and energy shortages. Indeed, while Macron was busy with high-flying diplomacy, Le Pen was shedding her image as the reincarnation of her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, the historic right-wing ogre of French politics.
Instead, she focused on pocketbook issues with a low-key, grassroots campaign that set her apart not only from Macron but also her alarmist rival on the far right, Éric Zemmour, a TV polemicist whose shrill anti-immigration campaign last autumn briefly propelled him into second place. (In the final results, Zemmour only got 7 percent of the vote.)
On March 31, Macron’s former prime minister Édouard Philippe came out and said it: “Yes. Of course Marine Le Pen could win the presidential election.” Two days later, Macron held his first and only campaign rally, a Las Vegas–type show that had 30,000 supporters stomping their feet and waving their phone flashlights. He too warned about the real danger of a Le Pen victory.
And in the week before the first round, polling showed Macron’s presumptive lead in the second round had shrunk dramatically. In a poll released on April 4, the result of the second round face-off was projected to be 51.5 for Macron and 48.5 percent for Le Pen, hovering around the margin of error—meaning that the French far right is now closer to power than at any time since World War II.
France, whose Fifth Republic is incarnated by a powerful, almost monarchical presidency, is known for its impatience with its leaders. “The French turn on their presidents very quickly, because they are so dominating, so omnipresent,” Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director at Le Monde, told me.
Even so, Macron’s slip in the polls may seem puzzling. Here is a young and dynamic leader making the most of his stature as leader of the country that now holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. He is intelligent, bold, and ambitious, capable of holding his own in hours-long discussions with both local notables and foreign leaders.
In 2017, months after his first election, Macron made a speech at the Sorbonne calling for a more “sovereign Europe,” a sentiment that was mocked at the time but is now becoming widespread in Europe in the wake of the war in Ukraine. He was instrumental in pushing Europe—Germany in particular—to mutualize its debt in July 2020 in the face of the Covid crisis, which helped the continent collectively handle the blow to national economies.
He is also credited with a relatively successful handling of the pandemic domestically, despite a fumbling start. His pledge to do “whatever it costs” during the depths of the crisis helped propel the French economy to a growth spurt of 7 percent in 2021, its highest rate since 1969. His decision to keep French schools open, criticized at first, is now hailed as having been the right thing to do.
But Macron’s ambitions stalled. The rolling, often violent demonstrations of the “Yellow Vests” erupted in November 2018 and continued for more than a year. An attempt to reform France’s retirement age went up in smoke as protestors jammed the streets just before the pandemic hit. And when the election came around, the Ukraine “bump” he experienced earlier in the year quickly evaporated. Macron, the Lucky Luke of the 2017 elections, saw that his luck was running out.
The fact is that he is a divisive figure: half the country admires him, sometimes grudgingly, and the other half detests him. For reasons to do with his style, his background as a former banker, and his tendency to let loose with sarcastic quips, he is viewed by many constituents as disconnected, inhuman, arrogant, and generally lacking empathy. “He is not very likable,” one French journalist told me. “He is, of course, very intelligent, but that makes him irritable with those he thinks are not.”
Macron didn’t help himself when, at the start of his mandate, he publicly criticized the French army’s chief of staff at a summer garden party, or when he shunned moderate French unions ahead of tricky labor negotiations. Perhaps his most famous insult came during the Covid crisis when he said he didn’t mind “pissing off” those who were unvaccinated.
But as the slow shipwreck of France’s two main parties on the right and left continues, and divisions in French society deepen, no other alternatives remain. Any hope that Valérie Pécresse, the moderate right candidate, could head off the appeal of Le Pen and Zemmour was dashed on Sunday by her startlingly poor score of 4.8 percent.
It is therefore up to Macron to block the far right in France. Despite her sanitation efforts, Le Pen’s campaign is still worryingly grounded in her nationalistic, anti-European, and anti-NATO outlook. Among other policies, she is calling for a national referendum to limit the rights of immigrants in France and make it harder for them to become French. Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war she has tried to make voters forget about her pro-Putin past: a campaign leaflet that featured a photo of her meeting with the Russian president in 2017 was quietly shredded in early March.
The stage is set for a vigorous final two weeks of campaigning. In order to win, the 44-year-old president will need to connect with voters, not talk down to them. He will need to jettison his “Jupiterian” style of governing, which has made him an obvious target for populist resentment.
“Don’t deceive ourselves, nothing is decided,” he exhorted his supporters after Sunday’s vote. “The debate we will have in the next 15 days is decisive for our country and for Europe.”
Celestine Bohlen is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, now based in Paris, who served as Budapest bureau chief from 1989 to 1991.
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