- By Dimitrios Kantemnidis
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron – then an unknown outsider – defied all odds and became the youngest-ever French president. His boundless reformist zest, which was supposed to transform France, came to a screeching pandemic-induced halt in 2020. With the 2022 presidential election looming large, can Macron win again or is he doomed to join his two predecessors in the one-term presidency club?
On the face of it, he looks well positioned for success. His popularity, deeply affected by social unrest in 2018 and 2019, has recovered since COVID-19 forced France to enter its first lockdown in March 2020. He now maintains a 40% approval rating, a figure much higher than that of his two predecessors at this stage of the presidential mandate. Considering the notoriously low popularity of politicians in France, Macron would be entitled to believe that he stands a good chance to become president again.
However, his current rating is deceptive and any notion that Macron would sweep to victory was shot down by a recent poll suggesting that only 23% of the electorate would vote for him in the first round of the election, behind the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at 26%. The well-known effect of ‘rallying around the flag’ in times of crisis doesn’t necessarily equate to the French clamouring for a second Macron term.
Shortcomings have spawned a potent mix of frustration, anger and anxiety
The pandemic has certainly forced Macron to reinvent himself. He has tried to erase the deeply entrenched image of an arrogant, pro-business president that ignores the needs of ordinary citizens, casting himself instead as the protector of the nation, putting a stop to his reform frenzy and pledging to save the economy no matter the cost. However, his handling of the pandemic has been marred by numerous controversies, most notably the shortage of masks during the first lockdown, delaying the second lockdown and a slow start to the vaccination process. Shortcomings have spawned a potent mix of frustration, anger and anxiety that may well come back to haunt him in 2022.
The old adage says that everything can change in a year. This needs to be heeded more than ever in a world disrupted by COVID-19. A relatively swift resolution to the health crisis followed by a strong economic rebound would put Macron in good stead, while a protracted return to normality and unfavourable comparisons with other countries would in all likelihood thwart his chances. However, capable management of the pandemic followed by economic sluggishness would make him vulnerable; voters might not credit him for handling the health crisis if unemployment soars. Reading tea leaves suddenly appears much easier than predicting the effects of the pandemic on the 2022 election.
Since 2017, Macron has focused on squeezing out competition on the Right. With large swathes of centre-left voters supporting him in 2017 and in the light of the semi-permanent state of disarray of the Left ever since, expanding to the right has made perfect political sense; hence his appointment of two right-wing prime ministers, the scarcity of left-wing measures and his recent focus on issues designed to appeal to right-wing voters, such as security or secularism.
A majority of French voters did not want a Le Pen-Macron rematch
This strategy worked well in the 2019 European Parliament election, with a devastating loss for the candidate from les Républicains (the Republicans), leaving Macron’s party in second, neck and neck with Le Pen’s Rassemblement national (National Rally), despite the election coming on the heels of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement that rocked his presidency. However, the Right has not withered away, achieving good results in the 2020 municipal elections and Xavier Bertrand, one of its potential presidential candidates, polling much higher than expected at 16%. Macron’s gains on the right might not be as solid as once thought.
On his left flank, the situation looks more favourable. The Left is still deeply divided and unlikely to rally behind a single candidate. However, les Verts (the Greens) did very well in the recent local elections. Should the Left present a candidate deemed capable of reaching the second round emerge, there is no doubt that Macron would lose a large portion of his left-wing voters in 2017. The question remains as to whether the shift would be in numbers large enough to squeeze Macron out in the first round.
And then there is Marine Le Pen. A poll in September 2020 revealed that a majority of French voters did not want a Le Pen-Macron rematch. With a faithful electoral base and now attracting a good number of voters who did not support her in 2017, it appears likely that Le Pen will make it to the second round at this stage, increasing Macron’s chances of elimination in the first round. Consequently, all potential candidates have chosen to focus their attacks on Macron, leaving him in a fragile position.
Macron could establish himself as a calm force
Beyond accusations of betraying his original philosophy as a centrist, criticisms of his handling of COVID-19 and the anger unleashed by the yellow vest uprising, Macron is hindered by a scant legacy. He was supposed to begin his presidency with a raft of reforms that would eventually bring benefits just in time for the next election, but COVID-19 has left this plan in tatters.
And yet, everything is still in play.
2022 could see another wildcard bursting into the scene as in 2017. A populist uprising, led by someone deft enough to seize the fire that erupted so strongly in 2018, is entirely possible. In an already volatile society pushed to its limits by COVID-19, anything can happen. This may well include a desire for radical changes, thereby sweeping Macron to the curb. Then again, it might also lead to a clamour for stability and experience. Macron could establish himself as a calm force – a steady hand to weather the COVID-19 storm. Handling a major threat might therefore give him a path to victory.
A presidential election is never decided 15 months out, especially not in a virus-ridden and uncertain world. Macron may well lift the curse of his two predecessors, but he may also become the first president to suffer an ignominious exit in the first round of an election. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is not to bank on certainties.
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