For a leader given to dramatic flourishes—a jaw-dropping Louvre backdrop for his 2017 election night, an open-topped military ride to his inauguration—French President Emmanuel Macron made quite the statement in early March, when he announced his run for reelection in total silence. In a simple letter published in French newspapers, he addressed his “dear compatriots” with uncharacteristic humility: “I am seeking your trust again.”
So began one of the oddest campaigns the French can recall—if a campaign it even is. Macron’s 11 rivals in the first-round vote on April 10 have spent months sniping and cannibalizing each other’s support. The run-off on April 24 looks likely to be a rematch of 2017, with Macron against far-right Marine Le Pen. He seems set to hand her another bruising defeat.
Yet the French leader has glided above the fray for months. Macron’s rocket-ride to power five years ago, at 39, stunned Europe and crushed France’s mainstream Republican and Socialist parties. This time around, Macron, now 44, has opted to play the president, not the candidate—a man arguably too busy solving major crises, like the war in Ukraine, to focus on street-level politics. “It seems over before it has even begun,” Le Monde declared of the “phantom campaign.”
With Macron’s victory seeming a sure thing, he has appeared to watch the election unfold from afar with remarkable ease. He was even photographed unshaven in his ornate office, wearing jeans and a military-issue hoodie. It was a startling break from his tailored suits—and widely seen as a nod to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, a few weeks his junior, whose viral appearances get plenty of French airtime.
While Macron’s popularity is up since Russia’s invasion began, his far-right rivals have scrambled to explain their long support for Russian President Vladimir Putin; Le Pen, 53, pulped more than a million pamphlets showing her shaking Putin’s hand. The Trumpian candidate Eric Zemmour, 63, who advocates deporting a million mostly Muslim immigrants, has been featured in a YouTube video, once calling Putin a “Russian patriot,” the kind of person France needs.
By contrast, Macron—who has the luck of France being the E.U.’s current rotating President, something that happens once every 13½ years—has both assailed Putin and used his frequent talks with the Russian leader to cement his stature as global statesman.
That has also helped bolster his key argument: that Europe needs to reduce its dependence on Washington and cut its own path to power. The day after President Joe Biden, in Warsaw, called Putin a “butcher” who should leave office, Macron bluntly said such talk risked escalating the war, at Europe’s expense. “We have many common values,” he said of the United States. “But the ones living alongside Russia are the Europeans.”
Macron’s wartime role can take him only so far, however. Even as voters look set to give him another term, many can barely conceal their distaste for him, as a know-it-all disconnected from hardship, who has ducked the campaign trail while on the world stage. Macron has yet to shake the nickname ‘le président des riches,’ a reference to his investment-banking past, and his early decision to scrap France’s wealth tax.
After he raised fuel prices in 2018, hundreds of thousands of “yellow vest” activists protested for months, burning barricades and trashing storefronts, and forcing Macron to back down. And when TIME asked him in 2019 about his reputation for arrogance, he told us, “I was elected. I’m in charge… I don’t care.” That breathless self-confidence, expressed in varying ways, has alienated many people, says Emmanuel Rivière, head of international polling for Kantar Public in Paris. After the yellow-vest protests, he says, “I would not have bet on his reelection.”
Rivière, believes the pandemic saved Macron: the French leader committed billions of euros to paying businesses and employees through months of lockdowns, and rolled out a mammoth vaccine program. France bounced back, and now has the lowest unemployment rate in more than a decade. The war in Ukraine simply sealed Macron’s comeback.
But tough times could be coming. Once installed for a second term in the Elysée palace, as polls suggest he will be, Macron will have to reckon with raging discontent. “There is a high level of detestation of Macron, which is unprecedented in France,” says Marc Lazar, professor of political history at Sciences Po University in Paris. For some, he says, “the hatred is carnal.”
Those feelings could boil over as prices rise and a €171 billion deficit begins affecting daily lives. And with people focused on Ukraine, Macron quietly announced on March 10 that he intended raising the public-pension age from 62 to 65—an explosive issue that might normally dominate an election, when there is not a war in Europe.
Voters tell pollsters that inflation is their top concern, with many struggling to make ends meet. Fuel at the pump now costs €2 a liter (about $10 a gallon), echoing the issue that triggered the yellow-vest movement in 2018. About 30% of voters intend to pick far-right candidates on April 10, while far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon will grab another 14% for an outside shot at the run-off against Macron. All that portends trouble. “You have a big risk of a new social revolt,” Lazar says.
Observers warn that Macron’s phantom campaign could come back to haunt him. “The anger among the French has not been expressed in this election,” says Antoine Bristielle, a public-opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès in Paris. Instead, he says, “it will be expressed in the street in his next five years in office.”
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