A lot can happen between now and April, but the crowded field of anti-Macron candidates is currently eating itself rather than its target. None of the challengers are projected to beat the president in the first round of voting or run-off. (Macron meanwhile has yet to officially announce his run.)
In the Macron era, personality politics continues to bury establishment party lines and ideologies.
Le Pen has always been the main threat for Macron, and she’s trying to become more palatable to the average French voter — dropping unpopular policies like quitting the euro, glossing over her past contentious views and seeking to detoxify her party. And yet all eyes are on Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit with no party machinery to speak of, whose potential candidacy would cut Le Pen’s support to below 20%, a Harris poll published on Tuesday finds. Macron would still win the first and second rounds either way.
On the Left, Anne Hidalgo has for months been tipped as a bridge between social justice and eco-conscious politics after Covid-19. Yet she currently polls below 10% and there is widespread skepticism that she can get rivals, from far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon to the prospective Green Party pick, to rally behind her. The Left’s own version of Zemmour is also hovering: Arnaud Montebourg, a former minister mixing interventionist economics with a more restrictive approach on immigration, has already launched his Macron-style political movement.
In such a fragmented political landscape, with French voters increasingly leaning conservative on issues like immigration and security while supporting Macron’s “whatever-it-takes” approach to pandemic management, the center-right is seen as a vital election battleground. But even here there’s squabbling: Xavier Bertrand, the most convincing candidate, is refusing to take part in a primary that would weed out rivals.
The confusion is made worse by candidates happy to flee the center to try to whip up the party base. Consider Michel Barnier’s hawkish rhetoric on immigration, viewed with raised eyebrows in his old stomping ground of Brussels, where he faced off against U.K. Brexiters.
All of this is no doubt music to Macron’s ears. His own party, a creation that blended political neophytes and experienced politicians in a mix of the populist and the technocratic, has failed to broaden its appeal beyond its narrow white-collar, pro-European base. And while he is seen as being a convincing leader and good pandemic manager, a majority of French public opinion is unhappy with his performance overall.
Still, Macron is more popular than his predecessors were at this stage of their presidency, and a brightening economic outlook combined with a fragmented opposition would be to his advantage come election day.
That’s assuming the marketplace of policy ideas remains bare. Headline-grabbing proposals have yet to move the needle: Hidalgo’s call to double teachers’ salaries and Le Pen’s proposal to renationalize highways are each seen costing around 40 billion euros ($47.3 billion). Christopher Dembik, a director at Saxo Bank, says these look unrealistic.
There are threats to Macron’s re-election beyond the roster of candidates, however.
First, if disenchantment with party politics turns into apathy and hurts turnout, he could face trouble. In terms of demographics, he only has a convincing lead over Le Pen among the under-25s and over-60s, polling suggests. Second, the broader economic and pandemic backdrop might suddenly deteriorate and make him seem less convincing as a leader — a surge in energy prices and Covid-19 cases might make an outside rival look more attractive.
Finally, Macron’s own personality is a risk. His governing style in trying to push through fuel tax hikes and pension reforms contributed to protest movements like the Gilets Jaunes in 2018. His economic reform agenda has only been a partial success, according to think tank iFRAP, and trying to push more changes through at this stage is risky.
No wonder Macron seems to be leaving it until the last minute to officially throw his own hat in the ring. His silence speaks volumes, even as the swarm of rivals gets louder.
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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