Emmanuel Macron, France’s independent presidential candidate (Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg)

Macron Struggles in Media Spotlight as Presidency Beckons

(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron stumbled out of the gate in his quest to unify France behind his bid for the French presidency, with some critics accusing him of complacency and a lack of guile in the aftermath of his first-round success.

After qualifying for the May 7 runoff alongside nationalist Marine Le Pen, the political rookie gave a 15-minute speech that some observers said would have been more suited to a full election win. The 39-year-old then took his staff to dinner at a left-bank brasserie.

“Macron has already made two serious errors,” said Thomas Guenole, a professor of politics at the Sciences Po institute in Paris. “His speech was celebrating victory and then he could find nothing better to do than to celebrate with his troops. He needed to show himself as a statesman and instead he comes across as a child king.”

In France, a president can set the tone for his term in office before it’s even started. Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 victory celebration at an upscale restaurant cemented his flashy reputation and Francois Hollande’s efforts to lead a national revival never really recovered from his drenching in an inauguration-day downpour in 2012.

‘Such Rejection’

While polls suggest Macron should win the contest by about 20 percentage points, the risk is that voters will be turned off by any sense of complacency. That will make it harder for him to rally an electorate traumatized by a sense that they have been forgotten by the political elite and, ultimately, push his agenda through parliament.

“The risk is that it’s a tight victory,” said Guenole.

Le Pen’s campaign pounced, saying the party was just another sign that Macron is a “bourgeois bohemian,” out of touch with ordinary people. “Macron and all his bobo friends at the Rotonde, the ultra-Parisian place,” Le Pen aide Wallerand de Saint Just said.

Le Pen is meanwhile trying to broaden her support. She used her first day of campaigning for the second round to announce that she was stepping down as head of the National Front party to be a “free” candidate who could represent “all the French people.” She said she needed “only 10 little points” to swing the vote her way.

Justified or not, the scene at the Rotonde restaurant in downtown Paris resonates particularly badly. The French press is already drawing a comparison with Sarkozy’s party at Fouquet’s, a more expensive Parisian eatery -- Le Figaro newspaper headlined a story, La Rotonde, the New Fouquet’s?

Jacques Chirac was anything but celebratory when he faced Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie in the the 2002 runoff, speaking of his “gravitas and determination” in a solemn five-minute speech.

‘Get McDonald’s?’

Yet when reporters approached Macron as he was leaving La Rotonde in the early hours of Monday, he failed to appreciate the fuss.

“My friend, you have understood nothing,” he said. “It was my pleasure to invite the secretaries, the security officers, the politicians and writers who have been with me since the first day.”

“What should we’ve done? Get McDonald’s and stay in the campaign HQ?” said Aurore Berger, a member of the Macron team, in a telephone interview.

Macron’s tally doesn’t compare well with other winning candidates. Of the 10 elections held under current rules, only Chirac won the presidency with a lower proportion of the vote in the first round.

Macron Struggles in Media Spotlight as Presidency Beckons

To win a broad majority, it will be essential to close the gap with less well-off voters. Data show Le Pen scoring much better with voters earning less than 2,000 euros per month and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Communist-backed candidate who took 19.6 percent of the vote, has so far refused to endorse Macron.

Le Pen’s tactic for the second-round campaign is to attack Macron on his social credentials. David Rachline, her campaign chief of staff stated it clearly shortly after her victory speech in Henin-Beaumont, a former mining town in impoverished northern France.

“We believe that this race into globalization will be even worse,” he said. “A brutal acceleration will come with Macron.”

Assuming he wins, the early days of a Macron presidency could be shaped by the margin of his victory over Le Pen -- a candidate still vilified in large parts of the country.

“Over and above winning, what is needed is to convince and unite the country,” Marie-Anne Montchamp, a former junior minister under Sarkozy, was quoted as saying in Le Parisien newspaper. “Some victories create the fractures of the future.”