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French election: will Emmanuel Macron win again?

Old rival from the far-right threatens to upset incumbent’s hopes of second term

The French presidential election could be heading for a “nail-bitingly” close finish if incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen face off in second-round voting.

The French president’s late entry into the contest and “refusal” to debate presidential candidates means that Le Pen has “gained on him to such an extent” that aides are “now genuinely alarmed he could lose a race that looked predictable just a few weeks ago”, The Telegraph said.

The first round of voting will take place this Sunday, and if Macron and Le Pen are the highest scoring candidates they could face an extremely close second round.

Macron presidency 

Five years ago, Macron, aged just 39, “stormed” his way to the French presidency after an “energetic campaign in which his supporters knocked on doors across the country asking voters what they wanted”, said the Financial Times (FT).

But as he seeks a second term in office, his closest aides worry that he has spent too much time on diplomatic efforts over the war in Ukraine and become a “distant establishment figure who is failing to engage with voters”.  

Despite an initial boost thanks to his attempts to broker peace with Vladimir Putin, many French voters now feel Macron is “a typical politician from the Paris elite who deserves to be taken down a peg or two”, the paper added.

He has presided over several political “storms” during his five years in office, said France 24 – “some were of his own making, while others barrelled over the horizon unannounced”.

His first year in office saw some of the most violent anti-government demonstrations since the 1960s when protesters in fluorescent yellow safety jackets (gilets jaunes) began a “nationwide revolt” against efforts to introduce major tax and labour market reforms. 

Then, at the beginning of 2020, came the world’s “once-in-a-century” battle with the Covid-19 pandemic, “rendering almost all other government business irrelevant and putting paid to his last reform plans”. 

He has also faced criticism for his “abrasive and sometimes authoritarian” style, the broadcaster added. Some “off-the-cuff” comments made to members of the public have forged a reputation for “arrogance and insensitivity” including one infamous occasion when he told an unemployed gardener that he could “cross the road and get you a job”.  

It was these comments, alongside pursuing a policy of tax cuts for the wealthy, that were the “fuel” for the 2018 gilets jaunes protests, said journalist Nicolas Domenach, who wrote a book on the president entitled Macron: Why So Much Hatred?.

“Not only did we have a ‘president of the rich’, but a president of contempt and arrogance,” he said. “It cut through. It was like he was branded with it, with hot iron.”

Macron has a “record of achievement, most notably in the economic sphere”, said former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable in The Independent

He has “disproved George W. Bush’s put-down that “there is no word for entrepreneur in French”, he added. “Tax and employment law reforms have energised France’s small business and start-up culture”, and there are indications that the economy is “recovering strongly post-pandemic, compared with both Germany and the UK”.

His other achievement has been to “embed pride in France’s European identity”, Cable said, banishing the spectre of an exit from the EU “even on the nationalist fringes”.

Chances of winning 

Right-wing nationalist Le Pen is closing in on Macron as France prepares for its first round of voting.

According to a Harris poll, Macron has “lost a further two points in voting intentions in the first round in the past week”, reported The Times, putting him at 26.5% of the vote share, while Le Pen has gained two points at 23%. 

And if the pair face each other in a run-off, Le Pen is polling “closer than she has ever been” to Macron, on 48.5% compared with his 51.5%.

Le Pen has “benefited from a successful drive to soften her xenophobic image”, as well as a decline in support for “anti-Islam pundit” Eric Zemmour, the paper said. Her campaign “focused on the key issue of living costs”, while “playing down” her Russian links.

Macron has also been accused of “dodging debate” ahead of the first round of voting, “snubbing a high-profile TV appearance just as a new opinion poll showed Le Pen in her strongest position yet”, said The Telegraph

He has “repeatedly refused” to debate other candidates, the paper added, arguing that no sitting French president has done so previously. But his “relative absence” on the campaign trail has no doubt “contributed to a slide in his ratings”.

Nevertheless, Macron is still “on track to win”, said the FT. “He has the advantage of incumbency”, the paper added, as well as being “prominent on the world stage” and “an effective leader during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”. 

Political background

Until five years ago, Macron was a little-known entity in French politics. A former member of the Socialist cabinet, he established his own party, En Marche!, in 2016 to challenge the status quo. 

Macron, now 44, was educated at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Strasbourg before working as an investment banker, during which a well-timed deal with Nestle and Pfizer made him a millionaire. 

After being a member of the Socialist Party from 2006 to 2009, he ran as an independent candidate and served as an economy minister under Francois Hollande from 2014. He resigned in August 2016 to establish En Marche! (On The Move)

Positioning himself as a “transpartisan” centrist, Macron’s party has defined itself against the aged definitions of left and right-wing politics to create a “third way” solution popularised by the likes of former UK prime minister Tony Blair. 

“I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long,” he said in 2017. Unlike the other frontrunners in the presidential elections, Macron is pro-EU and has expressed a desire to focus on building a stronger relationship with Germany.

What about outside of politics?

Macron met his wife Brigitte Trogneux, 24 years his senior, when she was his French teacher at school. They announced their status as a couple when he was 18 and they married in 2007. 

The couple live with Trogneux’s three children from her previous marriage. She retired from teaching in 2016 to help with Macron’s presidential campaign.

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