In French politics much of the news over the last few days has been of the centre-right party Les Republicains holding the first round of their presidential primary with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerging as the unexpected victor.
However, last Wednesday, a less well known politician announced his candidacy for the Presidency: Emmanuel Macron.
Until August, Macron was the Economy Minister in the Manuel Valls government under the Presidency of Francois Hollande. Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009 but since then he has been an independent, and has recently established a political movement called ‘En Marche!’ (the initials of which conveniently match his own).
It is under the banner of ‘En Marche!’ that he will run for the Presidency, although he is effectively running as an independent, given that he lacks the party machine which the candidates from the major parties will enjoy. Given the dire record of independent and third-party candidates in French Presidential Elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that Macron doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Presidency. However, although it will undoubtedly be difficult for Macron, he certainly has a fairly decent chance in the upcoming election.
Currently leading in the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with polling overwhelmingly suggesting that she will finish top in the first round of voting scheduled to be held on 23 April 2017. However, commentators have typically predicted that Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of voting, due to be held on 7 May.
Traditionally, French voters have a strong record of coming together to defeat extremist candidates for the Presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) was the candidate for the National Front and advanced to the second round along with Jacques Chirac, the candidate for the UMP (the precursor of Les Republicains). In the second round of voting, the anti-Le Pen vote came together to give Chirac 82.2 percent of the votes and with it a huge victory. Many observers expect a similar situation to arise this time, although opinion is almost unanimous that the margin of victory for the consensus candidate will be far lower than in 2002, and that given the worldwide trend toward right-wing populist political candidates that it would be extremely unwise to completely rule out the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the Presidency. However, the high likelihood of Le Pen’s opponent in the second round winning the Presidency means that, in theory, all Macron needs to do is win enough votes in the first round to advance into the second round.
One thing that could potentially make this easier is the fact that Francois Fillon has emerged as the likely winner of the presidential nomination for the Republicans. Previously, the overwhelming favourite to win was current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe who is considered a centrist. Given that Macron is also marketing himself as a centrist candidate in the election, Juppe as the Republican candidate could have made it very difficult for Macron to make any headway. The polls reflect this. So far in the Presidential race, and including the polls conducted before he announced his candidacy, Macron has been polling between 12 and 25 percent. Typically, his lower numbers have come when the pollsters have listed Alain Juppe as the Republican nominee. However, in polling which has listed Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Fillon as the Republican nominee, Macron has tended to score considerably higher. Therefore, the emergence of Fillon as the likely Republican nominee could be of huge benefit to Macron. If Macron is able to hoover up some of the voters who would have backed Juppe in the first round of voting, then he would stand a pretty strong chance of getting enough support to advance to the second round. As I explained previously, this would give him a very good chance of winning the Presidency.
The other variable to consider is whether incumbent President Francois Hollande will run for a second term. It has been reported that many of the President’s confidantes have advised him against seeking a second term given that his exceedingly high unpopularity would likely render the result a foregone conclusion — Hollande’s approval rating recently dropped to an historic low of just four percent. Macron was a key advisor on the Hollande Presidential campaign in 2012, and although he has been accused by Alain Juppe, among others, of ‘stabbing Hollande in the back’, he remains somewhat associated with the Hollande Presidency. This relationship is reflected in the polling with Macron scoring higher ratings when current Prime Minister Manuel Valls is listed as the Socialist Party nominee rather than Hollande — suggesting that Macron would be able to bring Hollande backers into his camp as well as Juppe backers. This coalition of centre-left, centrist, and centre-right supporters would stand him in good stead, and it is currently looking as though Macron’s insistence that his movement ‘En Marche!’ should not outwardly subscribe to any particular political ideology is looking like a rather shrewd decision. Macron’s own experience allows him to successfully straddle these ideologies. His previous membership of the Socialist Party has won him the backing of some centre-left voters plus the endorsement of Socialist Party members such as the Mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb. In addition, his experience as a banker with Rothschild, and as Economy Minister means that he also has strong connections in various highly influential business networks, although this has led to him being dismissed by Marine Le Pen as ‘the candidate of the bankers’.
What it does mean is that he has the ability to court voters who would usually go with the establishment candidate, whilst his independence from any political party and the fact that he has never before held elected office before means that he can also attempt to gain some of the voters who are keen for an anti-establishment candidate, which his speech announcing his run for the Presidency reflected.
During his speech announcing his candidacy Macron described France as being ‘blocked by corporatism of all kinds’ and unequivocally stated, ‘I reject this system!’ Although Macron is an avowedly centrist candidate, this imagery of a political system which faces gridlock as a result of corporate interests is also one which was readily used by the Leave side during the EU Referendum, and by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency, and although Macron is clearly not a populist in the mould of these campaign’s, he has certainly seen what works around the world and is attempting to use it to his advantage. Macron was also keen to stress that rather than advocating positions on the right or left, his En Marche! movement advocated ‘new ideas’, and therefore he has immediately looked to mark himself out as the ‘change’ candidate, something which has also proved extremely successful in recent elections worldwide. Indeed, exit polling following the US Presidential Election suggested that although many of Donald Trump’s actual policies didn’t find favour with the electorate, many voters backed him because they felt that he could bring about change in Washington D.C. that no other candidate, principally Hillary Clinton, could. By casting himself as the ‘change’ candidate, Macron clearly hopes to tap into the desire of voters to shake up the political system, and whilst similar to the Trump campaign for change, there are also uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997 when he was Leader of the Opposition and then became Prime Minister. It is no surprise that some have described Macron as being ‘more Blair than Blair’, with the likeness perhaps coming more from a seeming willingness to do whatever it takes to win as opposed to his centrism.
Although there is evidence that Macron is winning voters who backed Hollande in 2012, there has also been anger in the Socialist Party at his candidacy, with some senior members suggesting that all he would do would be to split the left and allow the far-right to take hold. Jean-Christophe Cambedelis, who as First Secretary of the Socialist Party is effectively the party leader, described Macron’s decision to run as “very annoying”, before lamenting that his candidacy would split the Socialist Party’s vote and make it almost impossible for a centre-left candidate to reach the run-off. However, with the Socialist Party so unpopular on the back of Francois Hollande’s stint as President, surely the likelihood of a Socialist Party candidate reaching the final two was slim at best even before Macron announced his decision to run? Indeed, it seems fair to say that Macron’s candidacy makes it more likely that we will see a centre-left candidate in the final two, given that he has the ability to draw the support of centrists and some on the centre-right. Back in August Macron was polled as being the second most popular politician in all of France, after only Alain Juppe. With Juppe unlikely to play much more of a part in this Presidential Race, out of the remaining candidates it will likely be Macron who is the most popular in the eyes of the voting public. Surely, on these grounds, he is a far better person to be carrying the standard for the centre and centre-left than someone like Hollande or Valls? The fact that Le Pen and Juppe went on the attack almost immediately after Macron’s announcement suggests that they too recognise his eminent electability.
Whilst it is undeniable that Macron’s road to the Presidency will be an extremely difficult one, it is a journey which is by no means impossible. All Macron needs to do is finish second in the first round of the voting and with it progress to the run-off vote where he would have a good chance of defeating Le Pen. Although it is hard to dispute that Francois Fillon remains the favourite for now, with more than six months still to go it would be foolish to rule Macron out just yet. Stranger things have certainly happened.