The Macron Leaks Probably Came Too Late to Change the French Election

There are limits to the parallels with America’s 2016 vote—and a big difference is the media.

Emmanuel Macron (Regis Duvignau / Reuters)

PARIS—Less than 48 hours before polls close in France’s presidential election and barely minutes before the end of active campaigning here on Friday night, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign announced it had been the victim of a “massive and coordinated” hacking effort.

Ominously, the news of the hack came just hours after Macron’s campaign had released a video using the U.S. example to caution its supporters against overconfidence: “The worst is not impossible,” the video said, showing clip after clip of U.S. pundits claiming a Hillary Clinton victory on November 8 was assured.

It was enough to give any observer of the 2016 U.S. election—in which the contents of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox were dumped, disseminated, and picked through for all to see—an alarming sense of déjà vu. The obvious parallels are certainly there: In the U.S., that hack arguably helped propel a right-wing populist candidate to an unlikely victory that reshaped the international environment. Could the same happen in France, where Macron and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen are battling for the presidency and, in some ways, for the future of France itself?

Parallels aside, these worries are largely overblown: The so-called #MacronLeaks will not be a game-changer in the French election. The overwhelming likelihood remains that Macron will be elected president on Sunday—and, this late in the game, the hacked emails can do little to change the outcome of the race.

The main reason for the difference is the timing: While late-breaking election news has certainly played a role in defining the final days of U.S. campaigns—think the FBI’s decision to re-open its Clinton emails probe in late October of 2016, for example, or the coverage of Hurricane Sandy during the 2012 campaign—French law actively prevents new developments in the final days of an election from occupying the headlines in such a way.

Here, the pre-election ban on active campaigning, which begins at midnight the Friday night before an election, and ends only when the polls close Sunday night, is practically sacred. The pause is seen as a time when French voters can sit back, gather their information and reflect on their choice before heading to the voting booth on Sunday. It’s also the law: According to French election rules, the blackout includes not just candidate events but anything that could theoretically sway the course of the election: media commentary, interviews, and candidate postings on social media are not just illegal, but taboo. (This is the reason Macron’s campaign sought to get its statement on the hacks out when it did: It arrived in journalists’ inboxes at 11:56 p.m. Friday night local time, just four minutes before the blackout began.)

French election officials made it abundantly clear Saturday morning that the hacked emails fall under the purview of things that could affect the outcome of the race, particularly since Macron’s campaign alleged that fake missives were mixed in with the real ones posted online Friday night. In a release to reporters, the Commission Nationale de Contrôle de la Campagne Électorale encouraged journalists to “remember their sense of responsibility” and “not report on the content” of the hacked emails—and even warned that an organization disseminating information that turned out to be false could face criminal penalties.

As a result, most major French media organizations reported the existence of the hacked emails but steered clear of the content. On the Le Monde website, for example, the lead story Saturday evening was a summary of the second-round battle between Macron and Le Pen; a story about the hack did not appear until further down the page, far less visible. And even the French far-right website Fdesouche, the closest thing to Breitbart French-language media has, appeared to link to just one set of screenshots out of the Macron campaign emails as of Saturday evening. That’s not to say that some people haven’t spent the day digging through email after email: A quick search for the hashtag #MacronLeaks on Twitter shows an active group of users posting quotes or screenshots from the hacked files. Still, dissemination of the emails themselves seems largely confined to far-right social media.

Had this news broken a week or even a few days earlier, it’s likely that Le Pen’s campaign would have had a field day. After all, when news of the hack came out on Friday night, top Le Pen confidant and National Front Vice President Florian Philippot suggested on Twitter that maybe it was a good thing: “Will the #MacronLeaks teach us something that investigative journalism deliberately buried?” he asked on Twitter. Under the media blackout, however, Philippot’s tweet was the last thing Le Pen’s team was able to say on the matter.

Of course, the downside of the timing is that if something truly damaging were to come out of the emails on Saturday or Sunday, Macron’s campaign would be equally unable to respond. But even if there were a true bombshell contained in those files, there’s probably not enough time left for it to make an impact. In order for enough voters to hear about it and actively change their minds, a damning piece of evidence would have to be found, disseminated widely, and digested in a matter of hours. That’s an even bigger feat given most major media organizations’ extreme reluctance to publish unconfirmed information from the leaked files. (Even Wikileaks, which helped draw attention to this hacked information, tweeted saying it “will not change” the election: “Macron has a 13 point advantage and French media pre-poll blackout has already started,” the organization’s tweet read.)

Assuming Macron wins on Sunday as expected, the bigger effect of the trove of emails will likely be seen after Election Day. In France, the new president is sworn in in mid-May and then turns his or her attention immediately to winning a majority in the June parliamentary elections—an especially daunting task for Macron, should he win, since he essentially founded his political movement En Marche! (“On the Move!”) from scratch in the spring of 2016. While typically a new president has no trouble gaining a mandate in the legislature, Macron’s lack of a previous party infrastructure will make this a real challenge for him. Plus, depending on how much coverage they get in French media, the emails will be a distraction—and litigating which emails are true and which are fake is likely to cause multiple political headaches for Macron and his team should they end up in the Elysée Palace.

In other words, Macron is about as likely to become France’s next president as he was before these emails are leaked. The hack’s effect on his ability to do his job if he gains office, however, is less clear.