Emmanuel Macron is within striking distance of a historic re-election as French president after clinching a first-round lead against his far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen. Investors should be relieved, but not complacent. Round two on April 24 will be a close-run affair.
Paris’s socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo scored a dismal 1.5%, and the center-right’s Valerie Pecresse scored 5% — the worst on record for both parties. The Fifth Republic is in uncharted territory, with Macron and Le Pen’s respective bases of white-collar and blue-collar voters displacing the 20th century’s Left-Right tribes.
The hollowing out of the center is benefiting radicals of all stripes. Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon came third with an impressive 21.9%; hardline anti-immigration pundit Eric Zemmour, meanwhile, won 7%. Even as Melenchon exhorted his followers to keep Le Pen out of power, a good chunk of them will be mulling the opposite: A Le Pen vote, or no vote at all, to get Macron out.
Shifting allegiances and a rising share of candidates out to punish elites — Le Pen, Melenchon, and Zemmour got over 50% of votes — has made French politics more unpredictable, even as the post-Covid state has become ever more generous. Macron will have difficulty building a comfortable vote cushion out of a frustrated electorate, with surveys estimating his poll share on April 24 at 51%-54%.
Even if Macron remains the favorite, his lead is slim — and vulnerable — relative to his last presidential runoff against Le Pen in 2017, when he scored 66%.
After a mediocre campaign in which he refused to debate his rivals, Macron will have no choice but to fight his opponent head-on. He can claim an improved economy and a revitalized European influence. But he will also be aware that his past reformist zeal isn’t going to win over Le Pen voters hankering for more protectionism, or Melenchon voters who want to prioritize the fight against inequality. Citizens want protection, reckons Catherine Fieschi of consultancy Counterpoint, making any second Macron term different from the first — not least with the make-up of parliament set to change.
Le Pen, meanwhile, will be a serious contender against Macron. She has excised her most toxic policy proposals — such as an explicit “Frexit” pledge — in favor of budget giveaways to the under-30s and a flirtation with a Melenchon-esque retirement age of 60. Beyond targeting volatile far-left votes, she will also hope to profit from the turmoil in Pecresse’s party, which is already split over who to back.
Diplomats in other European capitals are watching nervously: A Le Pen win would clearly be a thunderclap for the European Union. Beyond the immediate impact on the Ukraine war effort of a candidate with ties to Putin who has been critical of sanctions against Russia, there’s the real risk of institutional gridlock and internal fights over budgets, terms of trade and rule of law. Calls by Le Pen to favor French goods and reclaim powers from Brussels raise the risk of a de facto Frexit, according to Christine Verger, vice-president of the Jacques Delors Institute.
Macron will here too have to pit his own European project against Le Pen’s, while at the same time resisting the urge to focus solely on her extremism — her image as a candidate focused on consumer purchasing power has burnished her standing with voters, and that will take more than two weeks to undo.
The stakes in this election for Europe and the world are high. France is the EU’s No. 2 economy and only nuclear power, at a time when the continent’s geopolitics and energy ties are undergoing radical change. History is again on the move, to cite Arnold Toynbee: Macron is set to either be the first Fifth Republic president to win re-election since 2002, or the first to lose to the far right. The incumbent is proving his rise was not an accident of history, but also underlining that French democracy is stuck in a “crisis,” as Saxo Bank’s Christopher Dembik puts it. It will take more than a re-run of 2017 to fix it.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Macron’s ‘Revolution’ Faces a Reckoning: Lionel Laurent
• Le Pen Is Finally Getting Noticed by Markets: John Authers
• Ukraine Boosts Macron’s Call for European Army: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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