The French presidential election race has rarely been so tight and so interesting. The four candidates (three men and one woman) who have a real chance of getting through the first round on 23 April are proposing four competing visions of France’s future.
The latest polls put Marine Le Pen (far-right National Front) at 24%, Emmanuel Macron (center-left movement En Marche!) at 23%, François Fillon (leader of the conservative Republicains) at 18.5% and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far-left Unsubmissive France) at 18%.
A key feature of this campaign has been the incredible rise of Emmanuel Macron. Thrust onto the political stage as Francois Hollande’s economy minister in 2014, Macron founded his own political movement En Marche! just a year ago. It has already gathered more than 200,000 members. Traditionally, only candidates supported by a strong party base could win the presidential election, but now Emmanuel Macron has recast French politics and has a genuine chance of becoming president. What can explain his sudden surge?
Macron has framed his strategy around an optimistic message—that the French, despite years of economic difficulties, should not accept inexorable decline. His program promotes the liberalisation of social structures to support innovative economic, social, and technological projects to create more wealth and economic growth combined with the strengthening of the welfare state.
En Marche! promotes the full engagement of French society into the global economy to maximise the economic benefits for France. Macron’s program is also deeply pro-European Union: emphasising institutional reform and restoring a strong Franco-German relationship. Like Angela Merkel, Macron wants to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees seeing them as an economic boost rather than a threat. The leader of En Marche! wants France, including the French overseas territories, to engage even more with the world. Therefore, Macron strongly supports the deepening of new partnerships, such as the French-Australian relationship.
Macron’s successful strategy also stems from a message that rejects the traditional left-right dichotomy positioning him as an innovative candidate committed to renewing French politics. As voters in Western democracies turn away from long-established parties, Macron offers a movement organised around new faces from civil society rather than the old political class. He wants to marry two different concepts of democratic power sharing to enable citizens to be more involved with national politics. The first one promotes a horizontal deliberative decision-making process and was conceptualised by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whose assistant happened to be Macron. The second and traditional one is more vertical, with politicians holding the ultimate authority.
Macron’s march to victory faces three major obstacles.
First, he’s become the main target of all the other candidates, from the left and right. The strength of these attacks comes from the fact that Macron is not only popular but because En Marche! stands for the rejection of traditional political parties and the status quo. His opponents share a common interest in bringing voters back to their organisations. On the left, Mélenchon claims that having been a banker is not compatible with implementing left-wing policies, a claim Macron rebuts by asserting that he’s one of the very few candidates with a genuine knowledge of the economy. Benoît Hamon has accused Macron of having betrayed the Socialist party by creating En Marche!, a hypocritical accusation since Hamon has spent the last few years publically criticising the Socialist President François Hollande for being too liberal.
Second, Macron, as a former minister, must detach himself from the legacy of Hollande, the most unpopular president of France in the history of the Fifth Republic. The man now dubbed ‘Emmanuel Hollande’, by the right’s Francois Fillon has focused his strategy on convincing voters that he won’t follow the same policies as the incumbent president. But his task has been made harder because of the support he’s received from numerous mainstream politicians, from communists to members of Les Républicains, including former prime minister Manuel Valls. While Macron has asserted that public support for his candidacy would not guarantee a politician a position in his cabinet, such widespread endorsement across the political spectrum poses a challenge for his campaign platform of renewal.
Finally, Macron must also convince France that his program does not only assist the educated and wealthier part of the French population, which benefits from globalisation, but also protects workers and farmers who see it as a threat. In a country where 41% of the population associates globalisation with economic decline, Macron’s call to ‘free the forces’ of society does not appeal to these voters when compared to the more populist platforms of Le Pen or Mélenchon.
This election constitutes a moment of profound political questioning for a deeply divided French society. Will Macron’s path towards a new political discourse prove to be a victorious march to the French presidency?