Macron Crowds Center in French Presidential Election

In a three-way contest for the support of Middle France, the former economy minister could appear untested.

French economy minister Emmanuel Macron and European foreign policy coordinator Federica Mogherini participate in a discussion during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 22
French economy minister Emmanuel Macron and European foreign policy coordinator Federica Mogherini participate in a discussion during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 22 (EEAS)

Emmanuel Macron, France’s former economy minister, made official on Wednesday what political observers had suspected for months: he is running for president next year.

Although the announcement was a long time coming, it could still have an unexpected impact on the contest, which so far has seemed certain to end in victory for the center-right candidate, Alain Juppé.

Unpopular in his own party

Before he resigned from the government in August, Macron was the public face of President François Hollande’s late conversion to social democracy, spearheading liberal economic reforms such as allowing small firms to opt out of collective bargaining agreements.

That is why I argued here in May that he was unlikely to prevail in the ruling Socialist Party’s primary.

Macron’s “Blairite ways,” I wrote, “are an affront to many old-school socialists who cling to France’s heavily-regulated, state-centric social model.”

The former investment banker must have recognized as much and launched his own, centrist political movement, En Marche! (Forward!) this year.

It lacks infrastructure and organization, however, and Macron could face competition in the center if, in addition to Juppé, the incumbent prime minister, Manuel Valls, runs for president.

Hollande is deeply unpopular and not expected to seek a second term. Valls, a reformer like Macron, would be his natural successor.

Polls

Opinion polls put Macron’s first-round support around 15 percent, far behind Juppé and the far right’s Marine Le Pen, who would each get around a third of the votes.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in April will proceed to a runoff in May.

The best-case scenario for Macron would be if Hollande sought a second term after all and the center-right Republicans nominated former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is more of a hardliner. Then there would suddenly be a gap in the center.

Untested

In a three-way contest for the hearts of Middle France, however (Le Pen’s support is almost unchangeable), Macron would appear untested.

Juppé and Valls are both career politicians. The former was a prime minister under Jacques Chirac in the 1990s and has served as foreign minister in two right-wing administrations. The latter worked his way up through the Socialist Party, serving first as a lawmaker, then a mayor, then interior minister before becoming prime minister in 2014.

“Valls has more support in parliament and a deeper understanding of how power is accumulated from the ground up,” a supporter told Politico earlier this year, “and not from the top down, as Macron is proposing to do.”

The three men don’t have substantial disagreements on the economy. They all support liberalization and they all have the scars to prove it.

Juppé’s trial by fire came in 1995, when France’s public-sector unions paralyzed the county in opposition to his proposals to cut welfare and raise the retirement age. After weeks of strikes, Juppé withdrew the plans and resigned.

Macron and Valls this year and last rushes similarly controversial reforms through parliament which liberalized intercity transportation and made it easier for companies to lay off workers.

Surveys suggest that the reforms are broadly popular in the county, but they split Hollande’s coalition. Green Party and far-left allies walked out, contributing to midterm election defeats.

Beyond the economy

Beyond the economy, what does Macron offer?

Juppé can draw on his foreign experience and long career in government. He seems a safe pair of hands at a time when nationalist and populist insurgents are rising to power around the Western world.

Valls can draw on his experience as interior and prime minister to cope with questions of security and French identity at a time when the country is still smarting from a number of Islamic terrorist attacks.

In an interview with Libération, he predicted earlier this year that “culture and identity”, not the job market, will be the most important issue in the upcoming election.

Joblessness, especially in the deindustrialized north of France, is linked to voters’ concerns about immigration and globalization, but the question of French identify manifests itself in all the major political issues of the day, from what sort of an economy France wants to have to how it copes with terrorism, Muslim integration and the exodus of French Jews.