It’s that remaining président de la République offers him the chance to drastically shorten the period in which he must be regarded as a mere presidential candidate. The April 10th round of voting is the start. For a leader who doesn’t elicit much enthusiasm from the public—his approval rating stands at just 39 percent—it’s best to confine the campaign to a few short weeks.
Macron is still the favorite, despite his lackluster enthusiasm over five years. First, his rivals aren’t trending higher. Center-right candidate Valerie Pécresse has yet to catch fire, and far-right rivals Marine Le Pen and the incendiary Eric Zemmour are fighting for many of the same anti-establishment voters. The left—the Parti Socialiste, the Greens, and the La France Insoumise party—pose no credible challenge at all. Composites of recent polls show that Macron earns the first-round support of about one-quarter of voters while Le Pen, Pécresse, and Zemmour fluctuate at around 15 percent.
In recent weeks, Macron also benefited from an international spotlight due to Angela Merkel’s retirement. Her replacement, Olaf Scholz, presents himself mainly as a reluctant statesman playing defense between the competing pressures over Ukraine applied by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden. Macron’s recent visits of Moscow and Kyiv have burnished his credentials as Europe’s premier powerbroker.
Macron was also helped by the pandemic which now dominates around 40 percent of Macron’s tenure in office. France’s history is one of harshly punishing incumbents. COVID-19 has made Macron’s 2017 campaign promises seem unfulfilled by allowing him to lock down the country periodically. In particular, his vow to remake France’s pension system for state employees, the kind of controversial proposal that might have mobilized full-throated resistance from French trade unions, has been sidelined, sparing the president an ugly fight he might not have won. In addition to slowing migration, the pandemic also has had a negative impact on the nation’s ability to absorb it, which was an important issue for many in the past, especially the far-right. The fury of the “gilets jaunes” protests has also faded.
The performance of France’s economy has mainly been a plus for Macron, allowing him to present himself to voters as a “safe pair of hands.” Inflation, now at a 13-year high, is a growing problem in France as it has in many other countries. But growth has been a robust 7 percent, the French economy’s strongest performance in more than 50 years, and the unemployment rate has been falling for months.
But, much could shift in the next few weeks. Macron’s chances of a second-round victory (April 24) are much better if his opponent is Marine Le Pen, candidate of the populist right National Rally Party. Le Pen has now tried to remake her image enough times that she’s become a familiar figure in French national politics. Yet, she is burdened with the resentments of some voters on the right who feel she’s gone too mainstream, and voters in the center and on the left, who will forever associate her with the toxic xenophobia of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
If, however, Pécresse becomes Macron’s second-round rival, things could become more interesting. She’s a new figure on the French political stage and therefore lacks the baggage that Le Pen (and Macron) carry. Pécresse is also a much less unacceptable option than Le Pen for voters of the center and left. A status quo (Macron) vs change (Pécresse) election might not go the incumbent’s way.
But for now, Macron appears headed for victory—and another five years to fulfill some of the promises he’s made.