Stepping onto the vast white stage, thousands of glowsticks twinkling in the darkness of the crowd, French President Emmanuel Macron was in his element. It was his moment. And for two hours on Saturday, he kept his supporters spellbound with an account of his accomplishments over the past five years, his hopes and dreams for a second term.
For much of France’s four-month presidential race, Macron looked like a shoo-in to become the first French president in 20 years to be re-elected. Now his lead isn’t quite as comfortable.
As a result, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally, on her third attempt at the presidency, jumped in the polls and Macron seemed worried. The latest polls show that the gap between the two candidates is reduced to only 5% of the vote.
But most disturbing is reports that up to 30% of the electorate may simply stay home on Sunday in the first round of France’s presidential election. The top two contenders here will face off later in the second round on April 24.
While Macron has remained in the lead throughout his election campaign, the candidate most likely to face him has been less clear. At the start of the race, three women from the main axes of the political spectrum were in the running to become the first female president of France.
They were Anne Hidalgo for the centre-left Socialists; Valérie Pécresse for the centre-right Republicans; and Le Pen. The first two have faded sharply in recent polls, also threatening to bring down the two parties they represent, which have been mainstays of French politics for much of the post-World War II era.
Only Le Pen essentially remained standing. And she is at the center of media attention and the fears of the Macron camp.
Macron’s initial assurance began to turn when the Ukraine crisis erupted just as France assumed the rotating leadership of the European Union for six months. Macron had rightly portrayed himself as the Putin whisperer of the West, an irreplaceable figure who could keep the Kremlin at bay or at least serve as the only reliable avenue through the mind of the Russian dictator.
Macron had hoped to land a second term in that role, remaking Europe in the image of France and himself as a powerful and focused leader following the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. None of this worked as he had hoped.
Instead, Europe has been plunged into the worst conflict on its continent since World War II. Macron, first in herculean efforts to avert a Russian invasion and then in equally strenuous attempts to unite Europe behind sanctions while seeking a path to a ceasefire, diverted his attention for crucial weeks as the presidential campaign crescendoed – all largely in his absence.
Meanwhile, at home, Le Pen was quietly focusing her efforts on the pocketbook issues that bother French families the most — particularly inflation, which now tops 4.5%, more than triple the level a few years ago. one year old.
Without suggesting how she would pay for it, Le Pen wants a drop in VAT to 5.5% from the current 20% (zero for essentials like pasta and nappies) and no income tax for those under 30 years.
But behind the scenes lurk Le Pen’s long-standing flirtations with the Putin regime and campaign loans from Russian banks. Not to mention his suggestions that France could do better outside the European Union or even NATO.
To be sure, Macron did not entirely misinterpret French voters’ concern over Russian atrocities in Ukraine. But in the minds of most French people, these are still far behind “purchasing power”.
Indeed, an article that appeared this weekend in the Journal du Dimanche, France’s main Sunday newspaper, described “The 10 scourges that threaten Emmanuel Macron” – the No. 1 being inflation.
But also high on the list is the president’s continued flirtation with the third rail of French politics – raising the retirement age to 65. When Macron first launched this nearly four years ago, the very idea sent hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of France – the “yellow vests” movement that nearly destroyed President Macron’s first term. Macron.
Undeterred, he raised the issue again in this year’s election platform. Le Pen, meanwhile, wants to lower the retirement age to 60 from 62.
With the countdown to election day, Macron refused to participate in any televised debate with the 11 other candidates running against him in the first round on Sunday. Although he agreed to debate one-on-one with whoever might be the other candidate in the second round two weeks later.
Yet if there is one very important constant in French politics, it is voters’ deep-seated views on history, especially their own. The Nazi occupation of France is still an integral part of the nation’s DNA, even with few alive today who directly experienced these horrors. The idea of returning to a hard-right regime again is anathema to many.
Time and time again, the French have refused to cede their country to an individual too far removed from the mainstream. Le Pen lost five years ago to Macron in the second round. Much like her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002, losing in an 82% to 18% tsunami to Jacques Chirac, one of five times Le Pen ran under the far-right banner of the National Front.
The French, despite their constant flirtation with extremes, invariably penalize any politician who diverges radically from the mainstream, promising revolutionary change. So this year’s leading left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has proposed a complete overhaul of the French Constitution, still languishes in fourth place in the polls.
In the end, Macron should rely on a fundamental difference between French and American democracy. In France, it is the presidential candidate who wins the most votes, there is no electoral college.
Macron understands this, which is why in his statements at his rally last Saturday and in his various campaign appearances, he did his best to get votes from the far left and the far right, knowing that only one of them will participate in the second round. . Indeed, he is running a second-round campaign even before the first is over.
Ultimately, why should Americans or anyone outside of France care so deeply? Because if one of Macron’s most vigorous challengers, left or right, wins, the very foundations of Western democracy are likely to be shaken to the core – as deeply as Donald Trump ever has. Le Pen really wants Frexit (exit from the EU) and France out of NATO. The question is how many French people will want to risk that, especially with war practically on their doorstep.