AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
On Saturday, French voters will head to the polls to vote in the first round of France’s 2022 Presidential election. The incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, has played such an outsized role in French and international affairs that conventional wisdom held he would easily cruise to reelection against a scattered field. His most likely opponent, Marine Le Pen, was someone he defeated 66%-34% in the 2017 runoff, and while candidates such as the eccentric right-wing journalist Eric Zemmour received widespread attention, the assumption was that in a runoff (in all likelihood between Macron and Le Pen) the supporters of a candidate to Macron’s left would back him against a challenger from the right and vice versa. Yet something strange has happened on the way to Macron’s reelection: all the challengers except Le Pen have faded, and Macron, despite a surge in approval following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has seen his poll numbers plummet in the presidential contest. Some show him in a statistical dead heat with Le Pen in a possible runoff. What happened?
Several factors seem to be in play. For one thing, Macron’s version of liberal centrism has not faired well as of late. While dressed in flashier garb, it is ultimately the same elite-consensus driven politics identified with Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron. While charisma matters on the electoral margins, as demonstrated by the greater success enjoyed by Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, ultimately the bill on failed policies, especially regarding crime, immigration, and inflation, comes due. Charisma can only delay the inevitable.
Much like other Western leaders, Macron is facing backlash from voters over economic struggles. While inflation in France lags behind the Eurozone average, a point Macron is quick to highlight, it is still surging, having passed 5%.
Crime is also spiking in France much as it has been in the United States. Macron, again sensing the danger, promised to double the number of police officers on the streets in a second term, but this raised the obvious question as to why he did not do so in his first term. There is also increasing concern over “wokeness,” though with an added element of “anti-Americanism.” (In a touch of irony given the anti-American ideological motivations of those behind the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory in France was described by a leading critic of the trend as a “totally artificial importation” of the “American-style Black question” which “sought to create the false narrative of ‘systemic racism’ in France.”)
Macron again responded to the fears about “wokeness” by appointing a commission to investigate “Islamo-Leftism” in academic discourse, led by Frédérique Vidal, the minister of higher education, who spoke before parliament in terms which might be expected from Ron DeSantis. In referring to scholars of race and gender, Ms. Vidal accused them of “always looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide, to fracture, to pinpoint the enemy.”
Macron’s attempts to pander on these issues demonstrates an awareness of the threat they pose to his reelection. Why then have his efforts met with such mixed success? The answer is that like Joe Biden, Macron has a credibility problem. Yet if Biden’s problem arises from the perception that even if he wanted to carry out a popular policy he lacks the competence or ability to do so, for Macron, there is a perception that he does not actually care about ordinary people except insofar as he needs their votes.
These concerns were crystalized by the recent scandal dubbed “McKinseygate.” Revelations have emerged that Macron’s government paid $2.7 billion to McKinsey & Company, one of the largest management consulting firms in the world, to tell it what to do about COVID-19. This move set off a firestorm not only because unelected foreigners had made policy for France, to include closing schools and fines and arrests for the unvaccinated, but they had been paid a fortune to do so. More dubiously, the Spectator reported how aides from Macron’s 2017 campaign now hold senior positions at the firm, “including Karim Tadjeddine (current head of the ‘public sector’ branch of the firm), Eric Hazan (a leader of the digital branch) and Guillaume de Ranieri (head of aerospace and defence).” Not only does it look corrupt, but it creates the impression that Macron is more interested in taking policy advice from McKinsey than from French voters or politicians.
Macron normally would be able to blow off any criticism or unpopularity due to the fragmented nature of his opposition. Since 2012, the French party system has collapsed. The Socialists, who held the Presidency as recently as 2017, saw their candidate win a mere 6% that year. The Republicans (Le Republicans), the remnants of the Gaulist center-right alliance that elected Jacques Chiraq and Nicholas Sarkozy, fared slightly better, managing 20% in the first round, and makes up the official opposition in parliament, but their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, is seen as a has-been who served as a minister over a decade ago and is in danger of repeating the Socialists’ feat this year of hitting single-digits.
In the place of the traditional parties have been individual men (and women) consolidating power around their personal brand. Macron is the greatest example of this. A former Socialist minister, he reinvented himself as a center-right liberal, transforming himself from a Tony Blair type into a David Cameron type (or Bill Clinton into Mitt Romney). His party, Republic en Marche, is a personal vehicle which did not exist prior to his presidential campaign yet won a majority by swallowing up defectors from both right and left.
Macron’s flexibility is his greatest advantage. Because his party simply absorbed existing politicians, allowing them to use his personal appeal to escape the deaths of their own parties, he was perceived as a savior, not a threat to French elites.
By contrast, his major rivals, Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour, and Jean Marie Melanchon, a far-left candidate who admires Nicholas Maduro and Vladimir Putin, all attempted to build ideological parties. This was a weakness, as it meant their candidates often had never held office, had little local support, and a victory for any of them would pose a mortal threat not to Macron but to the entire French political class from the National Assembly downward.
Le Pen, however, has broken with this pattern, as she is the daughter of a former party leader. It has long been alleged Marine Le Pen has sought to “moderate” herself. “Moderate” can mean many things. There are ideological parts of her father’s movement she has repudiated, including his anti-Semitism and Vichy nostalgia. The most important moderation, however, has been Le Pen making peace with local politics. Rather than just trying to win the presidency every five years and then figuring out how to build a party, Le Pen has worked to build bridges with local politicians, recruit candidates for local government, and show how her party can govern. The result is that even if a Le Pen presidency scares many, it is a prospect much of the French elite can live with.
Le Pen has also benefited from the oxygen absorbed by the other gadfy candidates. Eric Zemmour, an eccentric journalist, attracted widespread attention not least because he made an extensive effort to appeal to “National Conservative” intellectuals in the anglophone world, traveling to Britain and North America. Zemmour has received extensive abuse in the mainstream media, even being accused of Nazi sympathies, which seems absurd given his descent from Algerian Jewish refugees. Nonetheless, Zemmour was unelectable. For one thing, he is too undisciplined, having engaged in physical alterations at events. Yet his greatest liability is precisely why he has attracted so much attention. The very fact that he appeals to an international “conservative” audience means he is the candidate of “international conservatism” not “French conservatism,” and in a very nationalist country that ultimately makes him suspect for voters.
Nonetheless, Zemmour has served a useful function for Le Pen. The presence of a viable, high-profile candidate to her right aided her efforts to appear moderate and disciplined. The same is true of Melanchon, whose far-left internationalism has oddly enough led him to focus his attacks on Macron rather than Le Pen, forming a de facto alliance to tag-team Macron on the cost of living.
With Melanchon attacking Macron from the left on workers rights, and Zemmour waging a culture war, Le Pen has been free to focus on inflation, crime, and the cost of living. The result is a campaign with two viable options.
The presence of “two viable options” is a mortal threat to Macron, because it turns the greatest strength of his political machine against him. Macron’s strength was that his party accepted everyone, no questions asked. That ensured Macron had no non-ideological enemies. But it also ensures that he has no ideological allies, nor any genuine friends. The moment it looks like he will lose, his party will see mass defections.
Does this mean Macron will lose? He is probably still favored, and the consensus is that he will remain in office. The assumption is that in a runoff left-wing voters who currently say they will abstain will turn out to defeat Le Pen. But those same assumptions were made about Brexit and the U.S. presidential election 2016 and 2020 elections. Then, too, elites insisted that the polls had to be wrong, and that they were overestimating, not underestimating, the anti-establishment vote. We will have to see if that assertion is indeed true in France this time around, or if the global realignment continues.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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