As the first round of the France's Presidential elections takes place this Sunday, Dr Andrew Smith asks whether Emmanuel Macron's stuttering record from his first term will be enough to help him see off his political rivals.

Taking to the stage amidst a bombastic display of fireworks at his campaign rally at La Défense, incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron sought to shrug the baggage of five years in office and cast himself as a re-energised candidate, ready to fight the 2022 election. Desperate to win back disappointed centre-left voters, while shoring up his centre-right base, Macron reminded the French of the threat of the far right. But, after a difficult first term, is the bright young thing of 2017 dented by his record or strengthened by it?

Macron's Record

Macron's election in 2017 drew great excitement as the young, centrist candidate promised to change politics and drag France into the 21st century. Talk of a 'start-up nation' was married with copious symbolism of France's storied past, not least Macron's frequent nods to General de Gaulle. Yet, that excitement soon cooled, as the realities of reform made Macron look more of a centre-right President than his bipartisan campaigning image.

In 2018, Macron's term looked like it would be defined by the largest social protests in France in a generation. The 'Gilets Jaunes' protests in the winter of 2018 saw a regular series of events where ordinary people took over roundabouts and donned yellow vests to protest a cost of living crisis, and a generalised frustration with a President who seemed aloof from his people.

The centre-piece reform of Macron's 2017 campaign had been to unite France's pensions into a single national system. As ever, social reforms met their match on the streets. Further protests in the winter of 2019/20 began with a mass strike that drew nearly a million on the streets, and encouraged many to look out their yellow vests again. The advent of COVID scrambled these developing movements and state responses to them.

In the ensuing health crisis, Macron promised to support France "whatever the cost" and championed a strong state response to the pandemic. He won over many small business owners with financial support, and this has helped galvanise his political base in the economically liberal centre-right. Public anger would return, however, around the effective yet privative health pass, constraining public life for the unvaccinated. With France a beneficiary of European COVID recovery funds, Macron took over the rotating Presidency of the EU Council in January 2022.

European leadership allowed him to campaign as President, demonstrating the benefits of European adhesion to his domestic electorate, linking development, recovery, and ecological transition to continental strength. His emphasis on strategic autonomy for Europe was likewise borne out shortly after. The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused shockwaves in French politics, shoring up Macron's lead while throwing a light on the contrarian attitudes of some candidates with longstanding sympathies for Putin's Russia, like far-right candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen.

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In recent weeks, there has been a mini scandal around the prominent use of consultants by the government during Macron's tenure (and relaxed attitudes to corporation tax in France). The difficulty for the incumbent is that this reinforces the image of the "president of the rich". When contrasted with the crisis in purchasing power, opponents have made hay in pointing out how already rich people are getting richer thanks to the state.

Election Rivals

In some ways, the election of 2022 feels like a replay of 2017 despite these crises which have beset Macron's tenure. The same candidates are likely to be returned in the first and second rounds, with Macron enjoying a near steady polling rate of 27 to 30 per cent, as he tried to float above the political dogfight playing out amongst his competitors. Accelerated by Macron's securing of the centre ground, the astonishing collapse of the centre left and centre right parties, which had been the pillars of French politics for decades, has continued apace.

On the right, Valérie Pécresse, the President of the Île-de-France region, has run a stuttering campaign for the divided Republican party. She has struggled to thread the needle between an economically liberal policy offer snaffled up by Macron, and nationalist identity politics being seized by the far right. Marine Le Pen has run a quiet campaign, combining an active ground game in rural and suburban areas and a laser focus on the cost of living crisis. This muted performance has seen dominate the right, while radical right commentator Eric Zemmour, whose frequent media outrages have drawn public condemnation, has acted as a lightning rod.

In 2017 the Socialist Party looked on their result as a disaster, in 2022 that single digit vote share may be an unattainable target for Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo. That she is polling above only the Trotskyist candidate is telling. A disastrous 'people's primary' failed to unify the left and has ended up defaulting its support to the veteran leftists firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He will be buoyed by 'useful votes' from those desperate for a left-wing option and retains an outside chance of reaching the second round.

Getting Out The Vote

Emmanuel Macron tried to energise supporters at his La Défense rally, warning them that the election was still to be won and so much potential progress was yet to be achieved. A low turn-out election could change polling dynamics and boost extreme voices. Macron has lost support from the left as a result of his record in government, and his worry will be that this could weaken a 'Republican front' against the far right in a second round (with weary leftists who did their duty in 2017 potentially boycotting the polling booth if nothing is on offer).

The 2022 Presidential campaign has not been characterised by hope or inspiration, but by declinism and negative identity politics on the right. For Macron to succeed, he will have to marshal his image as a competent governor and statesman with a renewed vigour and reheat the hopeful message he presented to the French public in 2017. Overcoming their understandable cynicism and weariness, rather than his immediate political rivals, will be Macron's principal task.

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