There is an axiom in French politics that encapsulates the trade-off involved in France’s two-round voting system. Au premier tour, on choisit; au deuxième tour, on élimine. In the first round, one chooses; in the second round, one eliminates.
French voters start by picking their preferred candidate on the first ballot. But they are forced into an often-unsatisfying arbitrage on the second if their first choice has not made the final cut. It often entails voting against the least bad option among the two still on the ballot.
No one understands this better than President Emmanuel Macron. He has himself compared his election in 2017 – at the historically unprecedented age of 39, and without the backing of an established political party or campaign machine – to a “break-and-enter.” The centre-right favourite to win that year’s election, François Fillon, was rocked by scandal only weeks before the vote. Mr. Macron, a self-assured former economy minister under Socialist president François Hollande who had the gumption to start his own party to launch his long-shot election bid, reaped the benefits.
His good luck continued after far-right candidate Marine Le Pen came in second on the first ballot. Voters on the centre-left and centre-right rallied to Mr. Macron to prevent Ms. Le Pen, who had railed against Muslim immigration and mused about withdrawing France from the European Union, from getting anywhere near power.
Now, after a chaotic five-year mandate, known in French as le quinquennat, that has played out against the backdrop of the threat of Islamic terrorism, a populist uprising against Paris-based elites and the pandemic, Mr. Macron is poised to win again. War has something to do with that.
Paris, in all its spring glory, feels about as far away as you can get from a war zone. Even if COVID-19 case counts have been rising again in recent weeks, the French appear to have decided to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. Restaurants, patios and bars are brimming, and maskless patrons live it up as only the French know how. Yet, no matter whom you talk to, the topic inevitably turns to war.
The Feb. 24 outbreak of a bloody conflict in Europe awakened a desire among famously contrarian French voters for continuity at home. Mr. Macron’s stature on the European stage suddenly made him somewhat irreplaceable. French pollsters attributed the rise in his approval rating after the Russian invasion of Ukraine to l’effet drapeau, or the flag effect. But the effect appears to be wearing off as the shock of the war subsides. Mr. Macron’s lead in the polls has narrowed substantially in recent days. One wonders whether, in the absence of war, he might have faced a similar fate as his two immediate predecessors, the centre-left Mr. Hollande and the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom ended up as woefully unpopular one-term presidents.
For sure, France is more polarized than when Mr. Macron took office. If he wins a second term, his margin of victory stands to be much narrower than in 2017, when he won 66 per cent of the popular vote on the second ballot. This time, polls suggest, almost half of French voters will mark their first ballot for a candidate on the far-right or far-left.
How much responsibility Mr. Macron bears for deepening cleavages within France is a matter for debate. His pedantic style has something to do with it. His obvious love of power and its trappings – which are particularly ostentatious, even for France – makes him a perfect foil for populists. He prefers the opulent settings of Versailles to the gritty streets of Marseille. Like Mr. Sarkozy, who acquired the nickname “President Bling Bling,” Mr. Macron is often too slick for his good.
Another cause of division lies in the fact that smaller parties are only weakly represented in France’s National Assembly, a function of the country’s electoral system, which requires candidates to garner 50 per cent or more of the second-ballot vote to win a seat. Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) won a majority of the assembly’s 577 seats in 2017. Ms. Le Pen’s party won only eight, fuelling sentiment among Rassemblent National (RN) supporters that the political system is rigged.
At the heart of the divisions in France today, however, lies the question of what it means to be French. Terrorist attacks in late 2015, when Islamic jihadists gunned down 130 people in central Paris, and the beheading of a high-school teacher in 2020 after he showed caricatures of the prophet Mohammed to his students, have hardened attitudes toward immigration and religious accommodation within French society. Mr. Macron has attempted to strike a balance; his rivals accuse him of complacency in the face of the threat posed to the French identity by a growing Muslim population that they say does not believe in the secularist values of the Republic.
No candidate has beaten this drum as loudly or effectively as Éric Zemmour, a poison-tongued right-wing essayist and former cable news agitator, who has attempted to usurp Ms. Le Pen’s mantle on the far-right with a zero-immigration platform and promise to deport illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and criminals.
Until Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, it looked like Mr. Zemmour might finish second on the first ballot. His previous encomiums to Mr. Putin have now come back to haunt him. But no matter how he performs on the first ballot, his influence on this campaign, and French politics, cannot be understated.
Ms. Le Pen, despite having once also been in Mr. Putin’s thrall, remains the candidate most likely to confront Mr. Macron on the April 24 second ballot, thanks to her solid support among working-class voters. The candidate for France’s traditional centre-right party, now known as Les Républicains, Valérie Pécresse, has struggled to crack double-digits in the polls, reflecting Mr. Macron’s success in drawing moderate Républicains toward him and Ms. Pécresse’s failure to stanch the exodus of others from her party toward Mr. Zemmour and Ms. Le Pen.
There is a chance that far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a politician given to fiery tirades against the rich and entitled who wants France to leave NATO, could surprise everyone. But he would first need to persuade French progressives to stop infighting long enough to prevent Mr. Zemmour or Ms. Le Pen from making it to the second round. The French left is weaker than at any time since the end of the Second World War. The Socialist candidate, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, is polling below 3 per cent. Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot is at about 5 per cent, the casualty of a campaign in which the environment has all but fallen off voters’ radar.
France appears set to emerge from this presidential election more divided than it went into it. Mr. Macron’s second quinquennat promises to be more agitated than his first. He will need all his chutzpah, and a bit of luck, to keep the populists at bay.
The question is meant to provoke.
“How many immigrants,” says the message on the giant LED screen set up at the front of the arena in Metz, a city of 400,000 near the German border, “has France taken in during President Macron’s five-year mandate?” When the figure of 1.8 million appears, the crowd boos, then breaks into chants of “Zemmour Président.”
The correct figure is closer to 1.25 million, based on the number of permanent resident visas issued to non-Europeans since 2017. No matter. When he takes the stage in front of 4,000 supporters, Éric Zemmour tells the crowd that this presidential election is the last chance to save France from Le Grand Remplacement, or Great Replacement. Mr. Zemmour has made the conspiracy theory hatched by French polemicist Renaud Camus the central conceit of his candidacy. It posits that Muslim immigrants and their descendants are gradually “replacing” white Christians as France’s dominant culture, all with the complicity of the country’s Paris-based elites.
“I will stop immigration, I will terrorize the terrorists, I will restore order,” Mr. Zemmour tells the crowd. “I will do everything to ensure that jihad never again is waged on our soil.”
The top two finishers on the April 10 first ballot will face off in a run-off election on April 24. Unless he is one of them, Mr. Zemmour warns nothing in France will change. He has named his new political party Reconquête! He promises to “reconquer” France for the French. He would abolish birthright citizenship and create a ministry of “remigration” charged with deporting illegal immigrants, convicts born outside France and everyone on the country’s terrorist watch list.
The message resonates with Jean Paul Suisse, a 73-year-old retiree who has lived in Metz since 2000. “Metz is changing enormously. It’s not the same population as when I arrived,” he says. But he admits to being put off by Mr. Zemmour’s “excessive side,” which includes making outlandish statements he often has to walk back.
The French government does not collect data on the religious affiliation of the country’s 67 million residents. But France’s Muslim population remains Europe’s largest and is estimated at more than six million – and growing.
The campaign has unfolded against the backdrop of the trial of Salah Abdeslam, who is accused of participating in the 2015 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Zemmour has blamed Mr. Macron for not doing enough to address Islamic radicalism since taking office, a charge the President has refuted, saying that he has closed 22 mosques and 650 Muslim “establishments” because they were considered hotbeds of radicalism. He has also spoken out against “Islamic separatism” within France, saying, in a 2020 speech, “we must never accept that the laws of religion can become superior to the laws of the Republic.”
“Under Macron, France has closed more radical mosques, deported more radical imams and dissolved more radical associations than under Sarkozy or Hollande,” notes Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right at the French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs. “But no state based on the rule of law can put in place the measures sought by the far right.”
Mr. Zemmour also accuses Mr. Macron of using the war in Ukraine as a pretext for avoiding a debate on immigration during the 36-day-long campaign. He dismisses Rassemblement National Leader Marine Le Pen – who is in her third campaign for president – as an “eternal loser.”
“They are trying to steal this election from you,” Mr. Zemmour tells the predominantly male audience in Metz. In the 2017 election, Ms. Le Pen beat Mr. Macron on the first ballot in the Moselle region that encompasses Metz. “They want to impose on us a Macron-Le Pen rematch that no one wanted in the first place.”
Like Donald Trump, the foreign politician to whom he is most compared, Mr. Zemmour has an acid tongue.
He has been fined several times for inciting racial hatred. Mr. Zemmour remained silent as his supporters chanted “Macron assassin” at a March 20 Paris rally, later claiming he did not hear them. Mr. Macron remarked that hearing aids are provided free of charge in France.
For weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Zemmour appeared to be stealing Ms. Le Pen’s thunder as the French far-right’s preferred candidate.
Her own efforts to soften her image since 2017, emphasizing economic security rather than immigration, had led many hard core National Rally voters to switch their support to Mr. Zemmour.
But Ms. Le Pen’s strategy began paying dividends as voters grew more concerned about rising inflation. In contrast to Mr. Zemmour, she has promised a mix of protectionist and welfare state policies. She has vowed to hold a referendum on reducing immigration levels.
Still, polls show that as many of 80 per cent of Mr. Zemmour’s supporters would back Ms. Le Pen on the second ballot, helping her to significantly close the gap with Mr. Macron. That gap, which stood at more than 30 percentage points in the 2017 election, could be only a few percentage points this time around, according to some late campaign polls.
As a foreign journalist, getting accredited to cover Mr. Macron’s mid-March unveiling of his election platform turned out to have been the easy part. Getting to the location of the event, held under heavy security in a warehouse district just outside the Périphérique ring road that circles Paris, turned out to be another matter.
The taxi ride involved endless detours down narrow one-way streets, often blocked by delivery trucks or police tape, through some of Paris’s tougher neighbourhoods, whisking me past the Porte de la Chapelle, a hang out for crack addicts that has been at the centre of a raging debate over migrants, drugs and crime that Mr. Zemmour and Ms. Le Pen insist have all proliferated on Mr. Macron’s watch.
At his press conference, Mr. Macron, slight and trim, and sprouting his first grey hairs at the temples, demonstrated the exhaustive command of every file for which he is known. His presentation was erudite, wonkish, if somewhat self-indulgent. Seventy-five minutes into his 90-minute address, he paused to say: “Tell me if there is something that isn’t clear.” Afterward, he took questions for more than two hours, appearing to relish the cut-and-thrust with journalists. Asked what he planned to do if he loses, he replied: “It is not out of vanity if I tell you I have not intimately asked myself that question.” I expected a performance; I got one, and then some.
Emmanuel Macron dominates French public life like no President since Charles de Gaulle, who had led French forces in exile during the Second World War before overseeing, in 1958, the foundation of the current Fifth Republic. Mr. Macron has neither de Gaulle’s height – the general stood 6-foot-5, while Mr. Macron is 5-foot-9 – nor his phlegmatic persona. But he does gravitas naturally. And the powers inherent in the French presidency, along with the implosion of France’s traditional parties since 2017, have enabled him to govern without effective institutional opposition. Early on in his presidency, he acquired the nickname Jupiter, after the king of the Roman gods. He spent the rest his first term trying to live it down.
Like de Gaulle, Mr. Macron is always exhorting French exceptionalism in some form or another. But unlike de Gaulle, who created a centralized bureaucracy that insinuated itself into all aspects of French life, Mr. Macron has moved in the opposite direction. He has sought to unshackle the French economy, relying for advice on outside consulting firms such as McKinsey & Co. A recent French Senate report found that the French government spent almost €1-billion on consulting contracts in 2021, an almost threefold increase since 2018. Mr. Macron has been dogged by accusations of favouritism toward McKinsey. Some McKinsey consultants who volunteered to work on his 2017 campaign went on to become part of his inner circle, forming a select network of acolytes known as la Macronie.
The Senate report also found that McKinsey’s French affiliates paid no income taxes between 2011 and 2020. On Wednesday, French prosecutors opened an investigation into potential tax fraud and money-laundering by consulting firms, including McKinsey, dealing a blow to Mr. Macron’s campaign four days before the first ballot.
“Emmanuel Macron is a President surrounded by experts – lots of experts – from the private consulting industry,” says Martial Foucault, director of the Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, of which Mr. Macron is a graduate. “I think he perfectly understands public administration theory” – according to which bureaucracies seek to expand their power – “and has sought to liberate himself from the system.”
An investment banker at Rothschild & Co. before entering politics, Mr. Macron touts La French Tech (a network of technology incubators his government launched) and aims to make France Europe’s premier start-up nation. He has cut taxes on the wealthy – earning himself a second nickname as the “president of the rich” – and liberalized France’s notoriously rigid labour market. He was on track to reform France’s costly and convoluted system of public pensions – a traditional third rail of French politics – before being sidelined by the gilets jaunes (yellow-vests) movement in late 2018, which began as a protest over a carbon-tax increase but soon morphed into a generalized uprising against elite rule and globalization.
“We got stuff done that both the left and the right had dreamed of doing and had never done before,” insists Roland Lescure, a member of the National Assembly for LREM. “The French labour market is more flexible than ever.”
France’s once chronically high unemployment rate fell to 7.4 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021, its lowest level since before the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Macron’s reforms have made it easier to fire full-time workers and freed up businesses to determine local working conditions. The result, as counterintuitive as it might seem, has been impressive full-time job growth. Average disposable income has increased 5.3 per cent since 2017, the fastest rate in two decades. The gains have been even higher (7.5 per cent) for middle-income earners.
In his cavernous Left Bank office, a perk as chairman of the National Assembly’s economic affairs committee, Mr. Lescure calls Mr. Macron “a pragmatist with a vision” and “a new incarnation of the pro-European French progressive.”
“We believe that France only gets stronger if Europe gets stronger,” says Mr. Lescure, a former second-in-command at Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec who represents French citizens living in North America in the National Assembly.
Mr. Macron has played the European card at every opportunity. He has taken advantage of Angela Merkel’s departure last year as German chancellor to push for greater economic integration and foreign policy co-ordination among the union’s 27 member states. His calls for an independent European defence policy – in 2019, he said NATO was in a state of “brain death” – have been superseded, however, by the Western alliance’s renewed sense of purpose in the face of Mr. Putin’s aggression.
Mr. Macron overcame longstanding German reticence toward EU debt mutualization, paving the way for the issuance of €750-billion in euro bonds, the proceeds of which are being directed toward helping the economies of weaker EU members recover from the pandemic. Mr. Macron’s promotion of all things European also serves, quite deliberately, to strike a contrast with his domestic rivals.
“The President has set himself up as the representative of the pro-Europeans against what he calls ‘the nationalists.’ He has sought to divide because he knows that, against Le Pen and Zemmour, he wins easily,” says Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far-right at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “It is risky strategy, because some on the left who voted for him in 2017 to stop [Ms. Le Pen] will abstain this time, given his record.”
France has its share of euroskeptics, though few still call for an outright Frexit – French withdrawal from the EU – as Ms. Le Pen did after Britain voted to leave the union in 2016. But the open-border policy among EU countries, known as the Schengen Area, remains a constant target for far-right politicians. Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Zemmour blame Schengen for the influx of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East and crime in France’s multiethnic banlieues.
On social issues, Mr. Macron’s government has largely walked the walk. France was one of the last Western countries to legalize gay marriage, which it did in 2013 under Mr. Hollande, and social conservatives still wield considerable political influence. Mr. Macron’s government has nevertheless loosened abortion restrictions, extending the time limit for the procedure to the 14th from the 12th week of pregnancy, and allowed lesbian couples and single women to seek in vitro fertilization treatments.
But Mr. Macron has ruled out cannabis legalization. And he would punt a decision over medical aid in dying, currently illegal in France, to a citizens’ assembly and referendum if re-elected. Repealing existing bans on the hijab in schools and the public service is out of the question. He has repudiated identity politics, saying last year: “The logic of intersectionality fractures everything … I stand for universalism.”
Mr. Macron’s energy policy has undergone a 180-degree turn since he took power. In 2017, he embraced Mr. Hollande’s post-Fukushima plan to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear electricity to 50 per cent from 75 per cent by 2025. He now vows to extend the life of France’s existing reactors for as long as possible, and to invest massively in the construction of six new French-designed EPR2 reactors by 2050. France’s overall nuclear energy capacity would increase by 40 per cent. Mr. Macron has cited Germany’s ill-fated decision to close its nuclear power plants, exacerbating its dependence on Russian natural gas, to justify his own U-turn.
On economic matters, Mr. Macron leans mostly to the right, at least by French standards. Mr. Foucault considers him a disciple of trickle-down theories popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both his prime ministers – Édouard Philippe until 2020, and, since then, Jean Castex – are former members of Les Républicains. So is his Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire.
Mr. Macron’s re-election platform includes making jobless benefits conditional on participation in training programs. And he has vowed to take another stab at pension reform, raising the retirement age to 65 from 62. Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen each vow to lower the retirement to age to 60 in most circumstances. Mr. Macron may have underestimated the depth of opposition to raising the retirement age and could still suffer for it on election day.
Still, pension reform is a fight France cannot avoid having. Spending on public pensions accounted for 13.6 per cent of gross domestic product in France in 2019, compared with an average of 7.7 per cent for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Over all, public spending surged to 61.4 per cent in 2020, the highest ratio among OECD countries – a result of a “whatever it costs” approach to getting through the pandemic. The ratio is expected to fall to about 56 per cent this year – a better, but still eye-popping, level. Public debt tops 113 per cent of GDP. Mr. Macron has pledged to cut the budget deficit from 6.5 per cent of GDP in 2021 to 3 per cent by 2027, technically the upper limit for euro zone countries, and to begin reducing the debt ratio by 2027 – all without raising taxes.
“There are reforms that you could qualify as coming from and being inspired by the right, others that are of leftist inspiration. I do not care – royally, totally, presidentially,” Mr. Macron said in unveiling his platform in mid-March. “I totally stand by it because I think that is why French voters chose me five years ago.”
Mr. Macron’s penchant for showing off his intellectual chops – he earned degrees in politics and philosophy before graduating near the top of his class at the elite École nationale d’administration (ENA) – has been a double-edged sword. If he has a blind spot, it relates to working-class voters, who see him as elitist and do not believe he shares their concerns. In 2018, he told an unemployed man who complained about being unable to find work to “cross the street,” suggesting the young man was not looking hard enough. The yellow-vest protests were as much a revolt against Mr. Macron’s let-them-eat-cake outbursts as an uprising against carbon levies.
Mr. Macron’s strategists have chosen a campaign slogan aimed at upping his empathy quotient – Avec Vous, or With You.
Not many French voters are buying it. Mr. Macron has shunned traditional campaign events, preferring to meet with small groups of hand-picked electors. He held only one large public gathering before voting day, an April 2 Paris rally at which he likened the election to a “combat of progress against withdrawal” and a “combat of patriotism, and of Europe, against the nationalists.” He refused to debate his rivals in advance of the first ballot. His opponents accused him of using the war in Ukraine as an excuse for avoiding them.
No Western leader spoke more often, or for as long, to Mr. Putin in the weeks leading up to the Russian leader’s decision to invade Ukraine. French diplomats, who had voiced skepticism about prewar U.S. intelligence pointing to an imminent invasion, were critical of President Joe Biden’s Feb. 18 declaration that he was “convinced” Mr. Putin had made up his mind. They felt Mr. Biden undermined Mr. Macron’s efforts at diplomacy.
“I think people recognize that he tried,” Mr. Lescure says of Mr. Macron’s entreaties to Mr. Putin. “There was a bit of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing with the States.” Still, Mr. Macron was poorly served by his own country’s faulty intelligence. The head of French military intelligence was subsequently fired.
Mr. Macron has continued to speak regularly to the Russian leader since the invasion and has held himself up to French voters as a potential peace broker. But he has also warned of possibly darker days ahead.
In a Mar. 2 speech from the Élysée – delivered the day before he officially announced his re-election bid – Mr. Macron said the “brutal return of the tragic in history” required “historic decisions,” adding Europe “must henceforth pay the price of peace, freedom and democracy.”
The speech built on a theme Mr. Macron has cultivated from his first day in office: raising his and France’s profile on the world stage.
Only weeks after taking office, he invited then-U.S. president Donald Trump to attend elaborate Bastille Day celebrations, even though Mr. Trump had called Ms. Le Pen the “strongest” candidate in the 2017 election and Mr. Macron had repudiated the U.S. leader’s move to pull his country out of the Paris climate accord. The invite raised eyebrows among French pundits, since few other world leaders seemed as eager to court Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Macron has shown uncommon confidence in his ability to charm his opposites on the world stage. There has been almost no international crisis during his first term that he has not run toward. Whether he has much influence outside of Europe remains unclear. France’s relations with its former colonies in Africa, especially Algeria, have deteriorated on his watch.
In February, Mr. Macron also announced the withdrawal of 4,600 French troops deployed in Africa’s Sahel region since 2013 on a mission to combat the Islamic State, citing a lack of collaboration from Malian military leaders who seized power in a 2021 coup, the second such coup in less than a year. Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group moved in as France withdrew its troops.
Mr. Macron was also caught flat-footed last year when Australia cancelled a €56-billion deal to buy French submarines, signed when Mr. Hollande was president, instead opting to purchase nuclear-powered U.S. subs under a new security pact (known as AUKUS) between Australia, Britain and the United States. Mr. Macon briefly recalled the French ambassadors to Washington and Canberra.
Mr. Macron “has built domestic political capital in trying to maintain French influence in international affairs,” offers Science Po’s Mr. Foucault. “But each time Emmanuel Macron has had to play a role in the world it has not been a success.”
I ponder this assessment on my way out of Mr. Foucault’s office, crossing the main courtyard on Science Po’s spiffy new 7th arrondissement campus, located on the site of a 17th century Dominican novitiate that was taken over by the Central Committee of the Artillery after the Revolution before becoming the headquarters of the French Defence Ministry. Surrounded by so much history, so much of it tumultuous, I cannot think of Mr. Macron without thinking about where he fits into all of it.
His 2017 election was a watershed moment. Until then, France had been suffering the same institutional sclerosis and gridlock as many Western democracies. The main political parties had become so beholden to their increasingly narrow bases that they lost sight of the public interest.
Mr. Macron blew all that up. His LREM of 2017 was a coalition of moderates – of ex-Socialists, of ex-Républicains, of progressives, of liberals and of previously unengaged citizens – who sought to break out of the rigid politics of the Fifth Republic. Mr. Macron brought to the Élysée Palace youth, energy and an unwillingness to take no for an answer when it came to finding solutions to intractable problems.
My assessment is that he has succeeded more than he has failed. But where he has failed – in underestimating the depth of the anxiety that has sent voters into the arms of Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Zemmour – his failure could have grave consequences.
As I walk back to my hotel, strolling through Saint-Germain-des-Prés and past the swanky brasseries where Mr. Macron plotted his 2017 rise to power, I recall something Mr. Lescure had told me earlier: “He’s going to want to make sure his second mandate is more transformative than his first.”
If he gets one, it will be. Just perhaps not in the way he imagines it now.
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