PARIS — France faces an unusual presidential election in seven weeks, with no credible leftist candidate, an electorate so disillusioned that abstention could be high, and a clear frontrunner who hasn’t even announced his candidacy.
That favorite is President Emmanuel Macron, 44, who has opted to stay above the fray, postponing his decision to declare he is running until near the March 4 deadline to do so. yet another way to satisfy his penchant for guarding his opponents. guessing.
Comfortable in his high centrist perch, Mr. Macron has seen the right and the far right torn to shreds. Immigration and security have largely pushed back against other themes, from climate change to the growing debt France has racked up in the fight against the coronavirus crisis.
“To call your child ‘Mohammed’ is to colonize France,” says Éric Zemmour, the far-right election upstart who has parlayed his notoriety as a TV pundit into a platform of anti- immigrants.
He alone, in his story, intervenes between French civilization and its conquest by Islam and “awakened” American political correctness. Like former President Donald J. Trump, whom he spoke to this week, Mr. Zemmour uses constant provocation to stay on top of the news.
Yet Mr Macron has a clear lead in the polls, which give him around 25% of the vote in the first round of the April 10 election. Mr. Zemmour and two other right-wing candidates are between 12 and 18 percent. . The splintered left parties are lagging behind and, for now, appear as virtual spectators for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
France generally leans to the right; this time he wavered. “The left lost the working classes, many of whom moved to the far right because they had no answers on immigration and Islam,” said Pascal Bruckner, author and political philosopher. “So it’s the unknowable chameleon, Macron, against the right.”
Benefiting from a perception that he has beaten the coronavirus pandemic and steered the economy through its challenges, Mr Macron appears stronger today than he has for some time. The economy grew 7% last quarter. Unemployment is at 7.4%, low for France. The lifting of Covid-19 measures ahead of the election, including mask requirements in many public places, seems likely, a step of powerful symbolism.
It is commensurate with the difficulty of attacking Mr. Macron that he seems both to embody what remains of social democracy in France – once the prerogative of a socialist party today on life support – and policies adopted by the right, such as his firm stance against what he called “Islamist separatism”.
“It is flexible,” said Bruno Le Maire, the Minister of the Economy. Mr Macron’s predecessor to the presidency, François Hollande, a socialist who feels betrayed by the outgoing president’s rightward turn, put it less kindly in a recent book: “He hops, like a frog on water lilies, from one sentence to another.”
The two leading candidates in the first round go to a second on April 24. The heart of the election therefore became a fierce right-on-right battle for a run-off run-off against Mr Macron.
Marine Le Pen, the perennial anti-immigrant candidate, has become Mr Zemmour’s fiercest critic as defections from his party have mounted. She said his supporters included “some Nazis” and accused him of seeking the “death” of his National Rally party, formerly called the National Front.
Mr Zemmour, whose extremist view is that Islam is “incompatible” with France, ridiculed her for trying to distinguish between extremist Islamism and faith itself. He attacked her for not embracing the idea of the “great replacement” – a racist conspiracy theory that claims white Christian populations are intentionally replaced by non-white immigrants, leading to what Mr Zemmour calls “creolization ” companies.
The president is said to be confident in his chances against either Ms. Le Pen, whom he beat hands down in the second round in 2017, or Mr. Zemmour, even if the casual intellectualism of this descendant of an Algerian Jewish family has overcome many taboos. which prevented conservative French voters from embracing the hard right.
France is troubled, with many struggling to pay rising energy bills and weary of the two-year fight against the pandemic, but a choice to blow up the system, such as the vote for Mr. Trump in the United States or Britain’s choice of Brexit, would be a surprise.
Paulette Brémond, a retiree who voted for Mr. Macron in 2017, said he hesitated between the president and Mr. Zemmour. “The issue of immigration is serious,” she said. “I am waiting to see what Mr. Macron will say about it. He probably won’t go as far as Mr. Zemmour, but if he looks efficient, I might vote for him again.
Until Mr Macron declares his candidacy, she added, “the campaign gives the impression that it has not started” – a common sentiment in a country where for the moment the political scramble can look like ghost boxing.
This is of little concern to the president, who has presented himself as obligated to concentrate on the higher affairs of state. These include his prominent diplomatic role in trying to stop a war in Ukraine through his relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and ending, with his allies, the difficult French counter-terrorism campaign in mali.
If Mali was a flagrant failure, even if it seems unlikely to influence many voters, the Ukrainian crisis, as long as it does not lead to war, has allowed Mr. Macron to pass for the leader de facto of Europe in the quest for constructive engagement. with Russia. Mr. Zemmour and Mrs. Le Pen, who together represent some 30% of the vote, do not hide their admiration for Mr. Putin.
A member of Mr Macron’s putative re-election team, who insisted on anonymity in accordance with government practice, said the possibility of a run-off against centre-right Republican candidate Valérie Pécresse was more worrying than against Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Zemmour in the second round.
A graduate of the same elite school as Mr. Macron, a competent two-term president of France’s most populous region and an instinctive centrist, Ms. Pécresse could appeal in the second round to center-left and left-wing voters who consider Mr. Macron as a traitor.
Learn more about the French presidential election
The campaign begins. French citizens will go to the polls in April to begin electing a president. Here is an overview of the candidates:
But a disastrous performance in her first major campaign speech in Paris this month appears to have dented Ms Pécresse’s chances, if not irreparably. A poll this week gave him 12% of the vote, up from 19% in December.
Ms Pécresse has been driven by the prevailing winds in France, arguably the European country most affected by Islamist terrorism over the past seven years, to the point that she chose to allude to the “great replacement” in her speech to countryside.
“Stop the witchcraft trials!” she said in a television interview on Thursday, in response to an outcry over her use of a term once confined to the far right. “I will not resign myself to a Macron-Zemmour duel”, because “voting for Le Pen or Zemmour is ultimately voting for Macron”.
There have been two Presidents Macron. The first sought to reinvent the French state-centric model by changing the labyrinthine labor code that made it easier to hire and fire; abolition of the tax on large fortunes; and other measures to attract foreign investment and free the economy.
Then came the revolt, in the form of the Yellow Vest movement against rising inequality and globetrotting financiers – Mr Macron was once one – seen as blind to widespread social hardship.
No sooner had that subsided than the coronavirus struck, transforming the president overnight into a “spend whatever it takes” apostle of state intervention from a free-market reformer.
“We nationalized wages,” Mr. Macron said in 2020, without batting an eyelid.
The cost of all of this will come due one day, and it will be expensive. But for now the president “at the same time”, as Mr Macron has become known for his habit of constantly changing positions, seems to be basking in the glow of the tamed pandemic.
“He was lucky,” said the member of his campaign team. “Covid saved him from more unpopular reforms.”
Anything could still happen – a European war, a new variant of the virus, another major terrorist attack, a sudden wave of renewed social unrest – but for now, the waiting game away from the melee of Mr. Macron seems to be working.
“In the absence of disaster, I don’t see how Mr. Macon wouldn’t be re-elected,” Mr. Bruckner said. Then again, the real campaign will only begin when the titular finally descends into the turbulent arena.