France politics: Emmanuel Macron: a serious contender?

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography
  • Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister and leader of En Marche!, has risen sharply in the polls over the past month and is now the third-placed candidate, behind François Fillon (Les Républicains) and Marine Le Pen (Front national, FN).
  • This reflects a carefully crafted programme that Mr Macron has built up over the past nine months, appealing to the centre-right on economics and the centre-left on social issues.
  • Since officially announcing his candidature in November he has held several huge rallies, impressing attendees with a charismatic and articulate delivery.
  • The weakness of his rivals on the left and Mr Fillon's positioning well to the right of Les Républicains mean that there are potentially many floating centrist voters that Mr Macron might be able to attract.
  • However, it is still early days, and with the campaign yet to begin in earnest, our core forecast remains a second-round run-off between the two frontrunners, Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen.

Emmanuel Macron has been building his presidential campaign for many months. He founded his own political movement in April 2016 while he was still serving as minister of the economy under François Hollande, the president. While working for the government he took every opportunity to contradict Mr Hollande and assert his independence from the president, frequently reminding journalists that he had never been a member of the Parti socialiste (PS). When he finally quit the government and then launched his own presidential bid, he declined to take part in the left-wing primary election, choosing instead to run as an independent on the political centre ground.

This strategy has guaranteed Mr Macron a place in the final election and enabled him to distance himself from the unpopular government to which he recently belonged. It has also allowed him to present himself as a fresh face with new ideas, free from the party baggage that constrains his rivals. In an election campaign in which three of the biggest political heavyweights-Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr Hollande himself-have already been eliminated, there might be a strategic advantage to being an outsider. Moreover, Mr Macron offers a break with the political status quo, locating himself outside the traditional left or right paradigm but without resorting to the extremism of Ms Le Pen, which still repels many voters.

Political positioning

Mr Macron's politics are, in many respects, the exact inverse of Ms Le Pen's. She offers a populist, hard-right stance on social issues while steering her party towards the left on economic questions in a bid to entice disenchanted working-class voters. By contrast, Mr Macron is both economically and socially liberal. His desire to shake up and modernise the French economy, championing pro-business reforms, appeals to voters on the centre and the right; his views on social issues chime with those on the left. He has also taken an opposing stance on the EU, arguing that "Europe makes us stronger", in sharp contrast to Ms Le Pen's call for an end to Schengen and an eventual referendum on EU membership.

His political positions initially made him the darling of a young, modern, affluent electorate that easily identified with this 39-year-old candidate who has never held elected office, although more recently people from a broader range of backgrounds have started to support him. His marriage to a woman 24 years his senior indicates a willingness to defy convention, and his former career as a banker and elite educational background help to compensate for an otherwise unconventional political trajectory (although this privileged background might become a liability later in the campaign). Until recently the consensus had been that his support base would be too narrow and his funding options too thin for a serious bid, whereas his lack of an established party machine would hinder his campaigning. So far it looks as if he might be making progress on overcoming these issues, but it remains early days as yet.

Nonetheless, in an election that is proving to be anything but predictable, Mr Macron is now undeniably a force to be reckoned with. His opinion poll ratings are picking up almost as dramatically as the surge behind Mr Fillon at the primary election for the centre-right party, Les Républicains, in November. Mr Macron has now firmly established himself as the third candidate in this race, behind Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen, but comfortably ahead of any of the PS primary election contenders. If he manages to maintain this momentum until April, he could pose a credible challenge to the two frontrunners, with a shot at qualifying for the second-round run-off vote for the presidency.

Drivers of support

There are several key ingredients underpinning Mr Macron's rise. The first is a campaign that has been planned for a long time, quietly building up a grass-roots network and then accelerating rapidly once Mr Macron had formally declared himself a candidate. The second is Mr Macron's personal charm. He is charismatic and eloquent, well able to engage audiences at his many campaign rallies. The large crowds that he draws dwarf those of his rivals-a recent speech in Clermont-Ferrand drew a 2,000-strong crowd, with another 500 turned away at the door, a week after a speech by Manuel Valls, the former prime minister and the leading candidate for the PS nomination, was attended by just 300-and the enthusiastic response of those who attend indicates that Mr Macron has some genuine appeal. He has also started to attract some big names to his cause, including a respected economist and public policy expert, Jean Pisani-Ferry, and a high-profile journalist, Laurence Haïm, as well as a growing number of politicians from other parties. Some leading members of the PS are starting to take him seriously; the Elysée has even had to face down rumours that Mr Hollande himself will be supporting his former protégé.

The third driver of this groundswell of support is the weakness of his rivals. The left has been crippled by five years of division, in-fighting and tumbling poll ratings. Mr Hollande's decision in the light of his dire approval ratings not to seek a second term was unprecedented under the Fifth Republic, the political system in place since 1958. Mr Valls is tarnished by his leadership of a deeply unpopular government. The candidates on the left of the PS have either had a low profile in recent years or become notorious for rebelling against the government, a tactic that might earn them sympathy among left-wingers but damages their long-term credibility and leaves them vulnerable to the problems that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has faced in the UK. Meanwhile, Mr Fillon's positioning on the right of Les Républicains places him some distance from the median voter; although he is now the preferred choice of rural Catholic middle-class conservatives, his message is not resonating so well with the floating voters, whose vote he needs to win the election.

Electoral chances

How strong are Mr Macron's chances? The answer partly depends on how Mr Fillon performs and whether he can broaden his appeal while maintaining the support that he has gained so far on the right. It also depends on who wins the PS primary. If one of the candidates from the left of the PS (such as Arnaud Montebourg, Benoît Hamon or Vincent Peillon) wins the nomination, they will leave a large gap in the political centre, which Mr Macron will be well poised to fill. If the more centrist Mr Valls wins instead, disgruntled voters from the left wing of the PS are likely to shift their allegiance to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leaving only a weak electoral base for Mr Valls. In either scenario Mr Macron might be seen as the "vote utile".

This phrase-which took on new life after Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine and then leader of the FN, qualified to the second round of the presidential election in 2002-refers to tactical voting to avoid splitting the left-wing vote and thereby preventing the far-right from getting into power. If Mr Macron were to become seen as the best candidate to challenge either Mr Fillon or Ms Le Pen in the second-round vote, he could benefit from a surge of support from moderates, progressives and anyone who would rather see a centrist in power than a staunch right-wing or far-right candidate. That said, however, with more than three months to go, a still incomplete line-up of candidates and the real campaign yet to begin, it remains to be seen how durable Mr Macron's current momentum will prove. Our core forecast remains that Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen will go through to the second round of the presidential election, which is in line with how the polls stand at the moment.

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