Stars Align in Emmanuel Macron’s Favor in France

Between a hopeless candidate on the left and a scandal on the right, Emmanuel Macron now has a fighting chance.

Former French economy minister Emmanuel Macron changes his tie on a train, December 31, 2016
Former French economy minister Emmanuel Macron changes his tie on a train, December 31, 2016 (Facebook)

Emmanuel Macron’s chances of winning the French presidency have never looked so good.

Recent surveys have him neck-and-neck with the conservative candidate, François Fillon. In some, he is even beating Fillon into third place, which would give Macron a spot in the second-round runoff against Marine Le Pen.

What’s changed from a few weeks ago, when Macron was in third place, is that the Socialists have nominated a far-leftist, Benoît Hamon, for the presidency and Fillon has been caught up in an expenses scandal.

Hopeless

Hamon defeated Manuel Valls, the former prime minister and a social democrat, in the Socialist primary this weekend.

Macron and Valls used to work together on economic reforms under the incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande. They are personal rivals but politically likeminded. In a first voting round, Valls may have retained enough center-left support to keep Macron from sliding into second place.

Hamon, by contrast, resigned from Hollande’s cabinet when Macron, a former investment banker, was installed as economy minister. The government subsequently weakened collective bargaining rights for workers and introduced competition in intercity transport.

Hamon’s signature policies are rolling out a universal basic income, funded by a tax on robots, and legalizing marijuana.

That appeals to a segment of the French left, but it’s not a combination that signals to swing voters the Socialists are desperate to cling to power.

Scandal

Like Macron, Fillon supports far-reaching economic reforms, including deep cuts in the public-sector workforce.

Unlike Macron, the Republican candidate and former prime minister marries his liberal economics with a social conservatism and conciliatory attitude to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Portraying himself as a modest man of the country helped Fillon win the center-right’s nomination.

It’s also what makes his current scandal so damaging.

Last week, the magazine Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that Fillon had long employed his wife, Penelope, as a parliamentary aid, paying her €500,000 from public funds over a period of eight years.

This week, Le Canard Enchaîné said payments to Penelope reached almost €900,000 altogether.

It also reported that Fillon had paid his two children around €84,000 between 2005 and 2007, when he was a senator.

No good options

Fillon has brushed off the accusations by calling them a left-wing conspiracy, but swing voters are not convinced. Fillon’s popularity is falling and the Republicans are worried.

The trouble is, they have no good options.

If they stand by Fillon and he does eventually bow out, they could look like fools.

If they convince Fillon to suspend his candidacy, it could be characterized as an admission of guilt and it’s not at all clear they have somebody waiting in the wings.

A couple of days ago, I suggested that Alain Juppé, a well-respected centrist who placed second in the primary, could take Fillon’s place. But he has since taken himself out of contention.

That leaves a third option: for Fillon to stay in the race and weather the scandal. The risk is that he’ll never regain voters’ trust. Just like Hillary Clinton technically didn’t do anything wrong by using a private email server in her capacity as secretary of state, the revelations and insinuations never stopped and quite possibly cost her the election.

Soft support

So far, so good for Macron. French voters have warmed to his appeal for reform and the opposition is fading away.

The only thing that should worry him is that his support is soft.

A survey carried out by Elabe for Les Echos, a financial newspaper, found that nearly one in two of Macron’s voters say they might change their minds before the election in April.

By contrast, 42 percent of Socialist Party voters say they’re open to supporting somebody other than Hamon. Only 37 percent of Fillon’s (remaining) voters would consider switching candidates.

Such self-reported figures aren’t totally reliable, but they do highlight Macron’s weakness: Since he is running as an independent, he cannot count on party loyalty.

For what it’s worth, voters for Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left and Marine Le Pen on the far right are surer than anyone. Only 39 and 19 percent of their voters, respectively, say they could change their minds.

But then, that’s what you’d expect from fanatics.