The clock is ticking, and Emmanuel Macron is about to make the announcement everyone knows is coming. He’s running for re-election. He doesn’t have to formally join the race until March 4, and for now, he’s making full use of the advantages that coming with being the incumbent president. It’s not just that the Élysée Palace offers a photo backdrop fit for a king. Or that he meets with leaders of other countries—like Russia and Ukraine—to try to help them resolve their frightening differences. Or that French officials can claim the Russians want to steal Macron’s DNA.
It’s that remaining président de la République offers him the chance to drastically shorten the period in which he must be regarded as a mere presidential candidate. The first round of voting will take place on April 10. For a leader who doesn’t elicit much enthusiasm from the public—his approval rating stands at just 39 percent—it’s best to confine the campaign to a few short weeks.
But despite the lack of enthusiasm for five more years of Macron, he remains a favorite to win. First, his rivals aren’t trending higher. Center-right candidate Valerie Pécresse has yet to catch fire, and far-right rivals Marine Le Pen and the incendiary Eric Zemmour are fighting for many of the same anti-establishment voters. The left—the Parti Socialiste, the Greens, and the La France Insoumise party—pose no credible challenge at all. Composites of recent polls show that Macron earns the first-round support of about one-quarter of voters while Le Pen, Pécresse, and Zemmour fluctuate at around 15 percent.
Macron has also profited in recent weeks from the opportunity to raise his international profile, thanks mainly to the retirement of the formidable former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her replacement, Olaf Scholz, presents himself mainly as a reluctant statesman playing defense between the competing pressures over Ukraine applied by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden. Macron’s recent visits of Moscow and Kyiv have burnished his credentials as Europe’s premier powerbroker.
The pandemic, which has now dominated about 40 percent of his time in office, has helped Macron, too. France has a long history of punishing incumbents, particularly those who have promised and then failed to deliver reform. But COVID-19, by forcing periodic lockdowns of the country, has given Macron a credible excuse for lack of progress on his most ambitious 2017 campaign pledges. In particular, his vow to remake France’s pension system for state employees, the kind of controversial proposal that might have mobilized full-throated resistance from French trade unions, has been sidelined, sparing the president an ugly fight he might not have won. The pandemic has also slowed migration into the country, a hot-button issue in the past, particularly for the far-right candidates. The fury of the “gilets jaunes” protests has also faded.
The performance of France’s economy has mainly been a plus for Macron, allowing him to present himself to voters as a “safe pair of hands.” Inflation, now at a 13-year high, is a growing problem in France as it has in many other countries. But growth has been a robust 7 percent, the French economy’s strongest performance in more than 50 years, and the unemployment rate has been falling for months.
Still, a lot could change in just a few weeks. Macron’s chances of a second-round victory (April 24) are much better if his opponent is Marine Le Pen, candidate of the populist right National Rally Party. Le Pen has now tried to remake her image enough times that she’s become a familiar figure in French national politics. Yet, she is burdened with the resentments of some voters on the right who feel she’s gone too mainstream, and voters in the center and on the left, who will forever associate her with the toxic xenophobia of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
If, however, Pécresse becomes Macron’s second-round rival, things could become more interesting. She’s a new figure on the French political stage and therefore lacks the baggage that Le Pen (and Macron) carry. Pécresse is also a much less unacceptable option than Le Pen for voters of the center and left. A status quo (Macron) vs change (Pécresse) election might not go the incumbent’s way.
But for now, Macron appears headed for victory—and another five years to fulfill some of the promises he’s made.
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