Macron’s Job Is on the Line and These Contenders Might Just Grab It

by BLOOMBERG

In exactly 12 months time, the French will start the process of deciding whether they want to keep Emmanuel Macron as president, or dismiss him.

The 43-year-old former investment banker-turned-president has been bruised by his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, rallies against police violence and strikes against his pension reform, as well protests by the Yellow Vests movement that demands greater economic equality. And then, there’s a perception he’s arrogant and aloof.

Even so, Macron’s approval rating is around 40% in recent surveys. He can count on a strong base of loyal voters and with the left- and right-wing parties in disarray and bickering over who will represent them in April 2022, he’s almost certain to make it to the second round of the election —  probably finding himself again facing off with far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

It’s a crowded and moving field, though, so don’t rule out a surprise. After all, a year before Macron was elected, few would have bet on him.

Here’s a look at some of the candidates who’ve already entered the race:

The Populist: Marine Le Pen

The National Rally leader believes her third attempt to win France’s top job will be the lucky one.

In the decade since taking over the party from her father, Le Pen has been working hard to move it to the mainstream. She made it to the second round in the previous presidential ballot in 2017, but suffered a crushing defeat when progressives rallied around Macron to keep her out of the Elysee.

As Le Pen, 52, stages her come back, she’s been tapping into anger over economic inequality and the dominance of Paris over the regions. She’s also lashed out at Macron for not having closed borders early enough to prevent the arrival of Covid-19 variants, as well as for the slow start to France’s vaccination campaign.

Le Pen says she’s learned from her mistakes. To broaden her appeal, she’s abandoned her pledge to take France out of the EU and condemned racism. And she’s embarked on a public relations campaign, appearing regularly on TV and radio to sell her new image to more voters. The gap is narrowing between Le Pen and Macron. Yet, she’s still perceived by a majority of French as “aggressive” and “worrying,” according to a recent poll.

What could help her? Massive abstention from left-wing voters who backed Macron in 2017. Second round polls show a much tighter margin between the president and Le Pen than before, with progressives reluctant to step in rescue him again after his tack to the right on issues ranging from taxation to immigration and Islam.

The Old-School Left Winger: Jean-Luc Melenchon

The leader of the far-left France Unbowed party is running for the third time as well, after winning 20% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 election.

Melenchon, 69, says the health crisis demanded a change in tactics so he’s no longer calling on people to create chaos and disobey — or as he says, he wants to move on “from the period of sound and fury.” He says he has dusted off his program and sought new ideas from key supporters, who tend to be highly-educated with lower revenue.

Melenchon’s policy positions are firmly anchored to the left of the mainstream Socialist Party. He’s a staunch critic of the EU as it is and defends protectionism as well as strong social benefits. He advocates boosting public debt, which he says will eventually not be repaid by the state, and wants to cancel debt owned by the European Central Bank.

A Melenchon win would likely be just as market adverse as a Le Pen win. His path to power includes uniting with the Green Party — it had a strong showing in last year’s city elections and its leaders have agreed they must forge an alliance with the left to contest the presidential ballot.

The Blue Collar Conservative: Xavier Bertrand

The president of the working class, northern region of Hauts-de-France left the conservative Les Republicains party after a hardliner was elected to its helm. He’s currently an independent.

Often described as compatible with centrists, the 56-year-old former Minister for Labor, Employment, and Health in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government had been talking about throwing his hat in the ring for more than a year before finally saying that given the current political climate, it was “his duty” to run.

He’s coming up with strong-handed proposals on security and terrorism, including lowering the age of penal responsibility to 15 years old, in a bid to win the backing of Les Republicains.

One recent survey had Bertrand running third in the first round. He’ll need to win upcoming regional elections to show he stands a chance to get the top job.

The Green-Friendly Socialist: Anne Hidalgo

In 2014, the Spanish-born Socialist became the first woman to lead the French capital’s city hall, a political springboard for the late president Jacques Chirac. She began her tenure with a baptism of fire — a deadly attack by jihadists on the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo followed months later by an even worse assault on venues including the Bataclan concert hall. Her handling of the crises earned praise from world leaders including Barack Obama.

When a fire partially destroyed Notre-Dame Cathedral in June 2019, Hidalgo was still mayor, she’d go on to win a second term about a year later. She has overseen the city’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and led a successful bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.

Hidalgo, 61, is regularly criticized by opponents for the dirtiness of some areas of Paris as well as her push to progressively ban cars from the city center, while some voters see her as part of a Parisian elite that doesn’t have a good grasp on what happens outside the capital. She has yet to reach the 10% voting intention threshold in polls.

Still, Macron advisers reckon she’s a serious threat. Her tough measures on vehicles are in-line with demands by the Green Party, meaning she could potentially unite with them, and/or eventually attract the votes of social democrats who backed the president in 2017. 

The Former Wing Man: Edouard Philippe

Philippe (picture), 50, hasn’t said he’s running, but he’s included here because, according to polls, he’s France’s most popular politician —  or, as he puts it, the “least unpopular.”

Philippe was heading France as prime minister when the Yellow Vests protests and strikes against Macron’s planned pension reform emerged. He handled the beginning of the Covid pandemic, and pushed to keep the country under lockdown. He was replaced with Jean Castex last July, just as his popularity was climbing and he was threatening to steal his boss’s thunder with his poised, down-to-earth style.

Now mayor of the northern, working-class town of Le Havre, Philippe has been raising his profile while out promoting his upcoming book, “Impressions and Clear Lines,” a chronicle of his experiences as prime minister that he co-wrote with a former adviser.

Philippe’s always been loyal to Macron and makes a point of remaining ambiguous on his election plans. He could emerge as a replacement for the president’s La Republic En Marche movement should his popularity plummet.

The Dark Horses

The list of potential other candidates is endless and on the right includes figures like Bruno Retailleau, president of the Republican group in the Senate; former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg and Philippe Juvin, the right-wing mayor of the northern city Garenne-Colombes who rose to prominence during the pandemic as head of emergency services at the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris.

Depending on the outcome of the regional elections, and whether Les Republicains decides to hold a primary, other candidates could include the party’s president of the Senate Gerard Larcher or Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who despite being featured in a lot of international press coverage, remains unknown to many in France, including those outside elite circles and the Brussels bubble.

The Greens haven’t picked a candidate yet. The field includes Yannick Jadot, a member of European Parliament, the mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle and economist Sandrine Rousseau. Their problem is that all parties are talking about the climate and ecology now, even Le Pen’s nationalists. They contend they’re the original while others are pale copies, but they’re being upstaged and the debate is moving on to other issues, such as religion and the economy. 

Still, the Greens have the potential to rally a large part of the left and Macron’s lieutenants have been on the attack, well aware that just across the Rhine, a German and more centrist version is running neck-and-neck with the incumbent government, five months before an election.