Emmanuel Macron Is Down, But He’s Far From Out
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- French presidential careers tend to begin euphorically, screech to a halt in the face of protests over promises becoming policy and end somewhere between indifference and contempt when voters bring out the ballot-box equivalent of the guillotine. The results of regional elections this weekend seemed to prove the pattern. President Emmanuel Macron's party racked up a humiliating defeat less than a year away from an increasingly tight re-election bid against far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen.
Yet on closer look, things are more complicated. While Macron has failed to broaden the appeal of newcomer La Republique En Marche beyond his white-collar base, his personal popularity is at the highest in a year thanks to the lifting of lockdown measures and a “whatever-it-takes” approach to public spending. That can still count for a lot in presidential elections.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that Macron’s Covid-19 response has smothered voter anger without offering a real vision for the future. That’s what he’ll need to conjure up as the presidential election campaign shifts into high gear.
As seen at last year’s local elections, the enthusiasm generated by La Republique En Marche, created as a reformist, pro-European alternative to the establishment Left-Right parties, is gone. It won just 6.7% of the nationwide vote to renew metropolitan councils nationally, according to exit polls. Importantly, the biggest showing didn’t come from Le Pen’s National Rally, on track for 19.8%, which also struggled to broaden its appeal. It was the traditional forces Macron had aimed to usurp, with center-right and left-leaning parties coming in at 38.8% and 34.7%, respectively.
The Covid-19 voter mindset in France is slowly taking form, and it’s unimpressed with disruptive populist answers. Turnout was shockingly low and not a single region changed hands in mainland France. Despite a lot of frantic rhetoric that France was facing social unrest close to “civil war,” as one hugely-publicized letter by retired generals put it, Le Pen’s results were poor, with her party failing to deliver on expectations of a regional win. The anger propelling anti-establishment parties simply wasn’t on show.
If there’s any momentum to speak of, it’s with the mainstream right, whose candidates are pitching themselves as the best bet to defeat Le Pen by tapping into public angst over security and immigration. The macho language on display from Xavier Bertrand, who described his victory in the northern Hauts-de-Seine region as having “smashed the jaws” of Le Pen’s party, sounded carefully chosen to portray Macron as a mere spectator. (It also elicited images of the ugly slap Macron received on the campaign trail.)
But none of this erases Macron’s popularity as president. A Harris poll conducted last week put his approval at 50%, the highest in a year. Right now, leading is less about reforming and more about spending: France’s budget deficit is at its highest since 1949 and its public debt is over 100% of GDP. It might seem odd to see Macron’s popularity rise nationally while tumbling locally, but it fits with the way Covid has empowered states to pursue their most Leviathan-esque dreams and sidelined local actions for now.
Next year’s presidential election will also have to face the fact that French voters increasingly lean conservative. The number of people polled who identify as being on the right rose to 39% last year from 34% in 2019. That explains why Macron has tried to tack right with promises to hire more police and to combat Islamist “separatism,” and also why Le Pen has ditched unpopular economic ideas like dropping the euro or leaving the European Union.
Clearly neither has hit on the right recipe yet. This will be an increasingly bitter, rightward, fight.
So, while France feels like it’s facing a political earthquake, it’s a tiny one. The latest presidential polls show the incumbent has a genuine shot at reelection, which would be a 20-year first, and that Le Pen is still the rival most likely to challenge him.
Yet the center-right can’t be easily discounted. The next six months could change things, and Macron’s advisors are likely already cooking up ideas to capture voters — a jobs program for the young, more measures to combat climate change or possibly even a divisive reform of pensions. But chances are it will be the delta variant, and the broader response to Covid, that will be Macron’s last chance to draw lessons from this latest election flop.
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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