BESANÇON, France —For months, Emmanuel Macron — the dashing, youthful independent candidate for the French presidency — has been making promises.
With a spring in his step, the former investment banker and recent Socialist economy minister has sought to charm voters on both ends of France’s deeply divided ideological spectrum, with a catchall platform committed to social liberalism on the one hand and fiscal responsibility on the other. But what Macron has really been promising his troubled country is forward motion.
The idea has been the essence of the Macron campaign from the start. Notably, his movement is called “En Marche!” — “Onward!” And if there is a single statement that best encapsulates the gist of Macron’s agenda, it is likely the line from “Revolution,” his 2016 book in which he identifies his greatest enemy as the “obstacles placed on the road” toward the “renewal of ideas and men.”
But with just two weeks to go before the first round of the election, the question is whether Macron, long considered the favorite in the race, and his romantic, often lofty proposals can persuade a largely undecided and disillusioned electorate to join his march. In an age of political extremes — in which those voters certain to participate have increasingly said they will support the far right or far left — Macron’s careful center is not sure to hold.
Speaking Tuesday in verdant Besançon, a historic stronghold of the French military at the foot of the Alps, Macron was far from the typically urban, elite demographic that flocks to his rallies with color-coded T-shirts and iPhones. But the former Rothschild analyst — who once told a trade unionist that “the best way to afford a suit is to get a job” — was here, nevertheless, to underscore his commitment to saving the middle class.
“To defend the middle classes is to respond to insecurity,” Macron said, emphasizing his promises to lower France’s residency taxes for as many as 80 percent of voters, as well as to expand health services across the country, “re-create” French schools and heavily invest in vocational training programs for young people.
As the twin extremes of Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left have begun siphoning off disaffected voters with radical proposals to leave the European Union and return to different visions of a protectionist welfare state, Macron — an Anglophone graduate of France’s most elite universities — has been struggling to present himself as the candidate best equipped to address the ultimate concerns of France’s angry, abandoned voters.
Central to his pitch has been an acknowledgment that these voters are more than entitled to their anger. With France’s unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent for years — and as high as 26 percent for citizens between ages 18 and 25 — Macron has urged voters to hold on to their anger, but to think carefully about its real and structural causes.
As he said onstage in Besançon: “We are the camp of useful indignation!”
In recent weeks, analysts have speculated whether scenes like these have begun to mirror the final days of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the United States, when Clinton, who shares with Macron a similar establishment pedigree and a comparably neoliberal economic worldview, failed to win over struggling voters and motivate her more apathetic supporters to turn out.
Although polls have remained fairly consistent, with Macron coming out on top, approximately one in three French voters still say they are undecided on which candidate they will support in the first round of the vote April 23, leaving more than ample room for volatility in the two weeks that remain. Many commentators have pointed, for instance, to the unexpected and astonishing rise of communist candidate Mélenchon — once dismissed as having no chance at all — as a sign of the uncertainty.
France has its own version of Donald Trump in the form of Le Pen, whose populist protectionism has appealed to similar instincts of nationalism and exclusion, and whose party sees in Macron the ideal embodiment of the cosmopolitan elitism they reject. Le Pen is polling ahead of Macron for the first round of the election, with most projections anticipating her losing to Macron in the second and final vote. Even still, voter abstention, according to a recent analysis, could be as high as 30 percent, paving the way for a Le Pen victory.
But others see real potential for Macron — who, unlike Clinton, has not been a fixture in his country’s public life for three decades — to convert the lingering anger among middle- and lower-middle-class voters into a much-needed boost in the campaign’s last leg.
“Emmanuel Macron is presenting a model based on the equality of opportunity,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst and expert in public opinion at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po (Cevipof) in Paris. “What’s most important in his platform is that everyone has the chance, and can be judged according to his merits.” For Cautrès, this represents a significant break with what has become France’s status quo.
“France has long had a politics based on equality itself,” he said. “But Macron is saying that we can return to the real equality — the equality of opportunity.”
In Besançon, a significantly diverse crowd gathered from near and far to see their preferred candidate. Students came from schools in town, while others bused in from as far away as Strasbourg, a nearly three-hour drive.
Marthe Scherly, 78, was among the locals. A lifelong Socialist voter, she is backing Macron because in this election, she said, “the Socialist party has too much wrong with it.”
Asked whether she believed that the 39-year-old contender would deliver on his many promises, she said she wasn’t sure. “That’s the risk,” she said. “That’s always the risk. But how are the others any different?”
Jean-Thomas Désiré, her 18-year-old grandson, said that he saw in Macron the incarnation of another political figure. “He is a French Kennedy. I just hope it wouldn’t end in the same way.”