How to Square the Circle?
Emmanuel Macron has a problem. His largest reservoir of potential voters lies among those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. The endorsements he has received from Nicolas Sarkozy and the Medef are not likely to earn him many votes from that quarter, au contraire. Trimming his sails on pension reform, as he has already done, is merely going to remind voters how slippery he can be rather than win their trust. And he has already recognized that attempting to raise fears of a far-right victory isn’t going to work: Le Pen is no longer the candidate of a negligible minority of malcontents. Too many people share her grievances even if they remain wary of putting her in power.
So what to do? Macron is proposing a point-by-point comparison of their programs. The problem, of course, is that reciting long laundry-lists of issues and proposed programs is tiresome–and many in France already find their president fatiguing to listen to. Macron’s larger problem is that his supporters aren’t fired up this time. His campaign lacks passion, whereas Le Pen’s has the wind in its sails. In 2017 he was the newcomer. He injected a kind of youthful JFK “vigor” into his campaign and held out the promise of economic revival through entrepreneurship and new investment. To some extent it worked. He has drawn new investment to France, and if no Silicon Valley on the Seine has yet emerged, venture capital has nevertheless responded to the reduction of red tape and the more favorable business climate. But Covid slowed the pace of renewal, and the Gilets Jaunes protests reminded investors that France might still present the risks associated with relying on un peuple dangéreux. The prospect of a Le Pen victory can hardly be reassuring.
There is the debate of course. As I’ve said before, Macron will try to tie Le Pen to Putin, while she will try to tie Macron to the rising cost of living. Both must avoid the traps that will surely be laid for them by their opponent. Haughty condescension could do Macron in, while a slip of the smiling mask could reveal the Le Penist snarl beneath. But assuming that both candidates are on their best behavior, I think the die is already cast. The remaining days of the campaign will not change many minds. The voters already know who Macron is and who Le Pen is. Their decision will turn on which one they dislike most. To me the choice is clear, but I’ve long since learned not to make prognostications based on my personal perceptions, which are not shared by swing voters either in my home country or in France. Like everyone else, I will await the revelation of Sunday, April 24, with bated breath. I have never been more unsure of the outcome of an election. This one will be uncomfortably close.