For a leader worn with dramatic flourishes – a jaw-dropping backdrop at the Louvre for his 2017 election night, an open-air military ride to his inauguration – French President Emmanuel Macron made quite the statement in early March , when he announced his candidacy for re-election in total silence. In a simple letter published in the French newspapers, he addresses his “dear compatriots” with an uncharacteristic humility: “I again ask for your confidence.
Thus began one of the strangest campaigns the French can remember – if that’s a campaign, it is. Macron’s 11 rivals in the April 10 first-round vote spent months shooting at each other and cannibalizing each other’s support. The April 24 run-off appears to be a rematch of 2017, with Macron taking on far-right Marine Le Pen. He looks set to inflict another murderous defeat on her.
Read more: Macron seems destined for a victory that will secure his place as Europe’s new leader
Yet the French leader has been slipping above the fray for months. Macron’s surge to power five years ago, at age 39, stunned Europe and crushed France’s main republican and socialist parties. This time around Macron, now 44, has chosen to play president, not candidate – a man arguably too busy resolving major crises, like the war in Ukraine, to focus on politics at street level. “It seems over before it even started” The world declared from the “ghost campaign”.
With Macron’s victory looking like a certainty, he seemed to watch the election unfold from afar with remarkable ease. He was even photographed unshaven in his ornate office, wearing jeans and a military hoodie. It was a surprising break from his bespoke suits – and widely seen as a nod to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a few weeks his junior, whose viral appearances get plenty of airtime in France.
As Macron’s popularity has surged since the start of the Russian invasion, his far-right rivals have been quick to explain their long support for Russian President Vladimir Putin; Le Pen, 53, has pulped more than a million brochures showing her shaking hands with Putin. Trumpian candidate Eric Zemmour, 63, who advocates the deportation of one million mostly Muslim immigrants, was featured in a YouTube video, once calling Putin a “Russian patriot,” the kind of person France needs.
A man watches on his computer Emmanuel Macron’s televised speech against the war in Ukraine.
Gerard Bottino—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
By contrast, Macron – who is fortunate that France is the current rotating president of the EU, which happens once every 13½ years – has both attacked Putin and used his frequent talks with the leader Russian to consolidate his stature as a world statesman.
It also helped reinforce his key argument: that Europe must reduce its dependence on Washington and fight its way to power. The day after President Joe Biden in Warsaw called Putin a “butcher” who should leave office, Macron said bluntly that such talk risked escalating the war, at Europe’s expense. “We have many common values,” he said of the United States. “But those who live alongside Russia are the Europeans.”
However, Macron’s wartime role can only take him so far. Even though voters seem set to give him another term, many can barely hide their distaste for him as an out-of-touch know-it-all who has dodged campaigning on the global stage. Macron has yet to shake the nickname’president of the rich‘, a reference to his background as an investment bank and his early decision to abolish wealth tax in France.
But Macron’s wartime role can only take him so far. Even though voters seem set to give him another term, many can barely hide their distaste for a man they see as a know-it-all out of touch with hardship. After raising fuel prices in 2018, hundreds of thousands of “yellow vest” activists protested for months.
After raising fuel prices in 2018, hundreds of thousands of “yellow vest” activists demonstrated for months, torching barricades and ransacking storefronts, and forcing Macron to back down. And when TIME asked him in 2019 about his reputation for arrogance, he told us, “I got elected. I’m responsible…I don’t care. This breathless self-confidence, expressed in various ways, has alienated many people, says Emmanuel Rivière, head of international polls for Kantar Public in Paris. After the demonstrations of the yellow vests, he says, “I would not have bet on his re-election.”
Rivière, believes that the pandemic saved Macron: the French leader committed billions of euros to pay companies and employees during months of confinement, and rolled out a gigantic vaccination program. France has rebounded and now has the lowest unemployment rate in over a decade. The war in Ukraine simply sealed Macron’s return.
But hard times could come. Once installed for a second term at the Elysée, as the polls suggest, Macron will have to reckon with unleashed discontent. “There is a high level of hatred of Macron, which is unprecedented in France,” says Marc Lazar, professor of political history at Sciences Po Paris. For some, he says, “hate is carnal.”
Those feelings could boil over as prices rise and a 171 billion euro deficit begins to affect daily life. And with people focused on Ukraine, Macron quietly announced on March 10 that he intended to raise the public retirement age from 62 to 65 – a volatile issue that could normally dominate an election, when there is no war in Europe.
Voters tell pollsters inflation is their top concern, with many struggling to make ends meet. Fuel at the pump now costs €2 a liter (around $10 a gallon), echoing the issue that sparked the yellow vest movement in 2018. Around 30% of voters intend to choose extreme candidates right on April 10, while far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon will win another 14% for an outside shot in the second round against Macron. All this portends trouble. “You have a big risk of a new social revolt,” says Lazar.
Observers warn that Macron’s shadow campaign could come back to haunt him. “The anger of the French people was not expressed in this election,” laments Antoine Bristielle, public opinion expert at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation in Paris. Instead, he says, “it will speak out on the streets over his next five years in office.”
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