Taking to the vast white stage, thousands of light bars shining in the darkness of the crowd, French President Emmanuel Macron was in his element. This was his moment. And for two hours on Saturday, he kept his fans spellbound with a recitation of his accomplishments of the past five years, his hopes and dreams for a second term.
For much of France’s four-month presidential race, Macron seemed like a sure shot to become the first French president in 20 years to win re-election. Now his advantage is not so comfortable.
Suddenly, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Grouping, in her third bid for the presidency, is rising in the polls and Macron seems worried. The latest polls show that the margin between the two candidates is reduced to only 5% of the votes.
But more worrying are reports that up to 30% of the electorate could simply stay home on Sunday during the first round of the French presidential election. The two main candidates here will meet later in the final runoff on April 24.
While Macron has remained in the lead throughout his election campaign, the candidate most likely to face him has been less obvious. Early in the race, three women from the main axes of the political spectrum were vying to become France’s first female president.
They were Anne Hidalgo for the center-left socialists; Valérie Pécresse for the center-right Republicans; and LePen. The first two have faded sharply in recent polls, threatening to topple as well the two parties they represent and which have been the staples of French politics for much of the post-World War II era.
Only Le Pen is essentially left standing. And she is the focus of media attention and the fears of Macron’s camp.
Macron’s initial confidence began to change when the Ukraine crisis erupted at the same time that France assumed the six-month rotating leadership of the European Union. Macron had rightly painted himself as the West’s Putin whisperer, an irreplaceable figure who could keep the Kremlin at bay or at least serve as the only reliable avenue into the Russian dictator’s mind.
Macron hoped to move on to a second term in that role, remaking Europe in France’s image and himself as its powerful and focused leader following the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. None of this worked as he expected.
Instead, Europe has been plunged into the worst conflict on its continent since World War II. Macron, first in Herculean efforts to stave off a Russian invasion, then in equally energy-consuming attempts to rally Europe behind sanctions as he searched for some route to a ceasefire, diverted his attention for crucial weeks as the presidential campaign crescendoed, all largely in his absence
Back home, meanwhile, Le Pen was quietly focusing her efforts on the pocketbook problems French families are most concerned about, especially inflation, which is now running at more than 4.5%, more than triple the level of a year ago.
Without suggesting how she would pay for this, Le Pen wants a reduction in VAT to 5.5% from the current 20% (zero for essentials like pasta and diapers) and no income tax for those under 30.
But lurking in the wings are Le Pen’s long-standing dalliances with the Putin regime and campaign loans from Russian banks. Not to mention his suggestion that France would be better off outside the European Union or even NATO.
Certainly, Macron did not entirely misunderstand French voters’ concern over Russian atrocities in Ukraine. But in the minds of most French people, these are still a distant second behind “purchasing power.”
In fact, an article in France’s leading Sunday newspaper, Journal du Dimanche, this weekend described “The 10 Plagues Threatening Emmanuel Macron,” with 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 raised this nearly four years ago, the very idea sent hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets of France: the “yellow vests” movement that nearly destroyed Macron’s first term.
Undeterred, he raised the issue again on this year’s electoral platform. Le Pen, for his part, wants to lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 years.
With the countdown to election day, Macron has refused to take part in any televised debate with the 11 other candidates who will face him in the first round on Sunday. Although he has agreed to debate one on one with whoever is the other candidate in the second round two weeks later.
Still, if there is one very important constant in French politics, it is voters’ deeply ingrained views of history, especially their own. The Nazi occupation of France remains a huge part of the nation’s DNA, with even few alive today having directly experienced these horrors. The idea of returning to a far-right regime is anathema to many.
Time and time again, the French have refused to hand over their country to any individual too far removed from the mainstream. Le Pen lost five years ago to Macron in the second round. Just as his father Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002, losing in a tsunami of 82% to 18% against Jacques Chirac, one of the five times Le Pen ran under the extreme-right banner of the National Front.
The French, despite their constant flirtation with extremes, invariably penalize any politician who deviates drastically from the mainstream by promising revolutionary change. So this year’s leading left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who suggested reforming the French constitution entirely, still languishes in fourth place in the polls.
In the end, Macron should reckon with a fundamental difference between French and American democracy. In France, the presidential candidate with the highest number of votes wins, there is no electoral college.
Macron understands this, which is why in his remarks at his rally last Saturday and various campaign appearances, he has been doing his best to scrape votes from the far left and the far right, knowing that only one of them will be in the second. end lap. . Effectively, he’s running a second-round campaign before the first round is over.
In the end, why should Americans or anyone outside of France care so much about this? For if any of Macron’s most vocal challengers, left or right, win, the very foundations of Western democracy risk being shaken to the core, as profoundly as Donald Trump was. 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, particularly with a war practically around the corner.