Emmanuel Macron's Unexpected Shot at the French Presidency

The former economy minister’s surge in popularity makes him the front-runner—for now.

Independent candidate Emmanuel Macron
Independent candidate Emmanuel Macron addresses supporters at a campaign rally in Lyon, France on February 4, 2017. (Robert Pratta / Reuters )

The French presidential election has been full of surprises—from former Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s failed Socialist primary bid to the financial scandal plaguing the campaign of François Fillon, the center-right candidate. And no one has benefitted from these surprises more than Emmanuel Macron.

A poll released Monday by French pollster Opinionway showed the 39-year-old independent beating Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, in the French election’s second round run-off in May with 65 percent of the vote. Le Pen is widely expected to finish either first or second in the first round of voting in April.

And while it’s still early, and polls can be wrong, Macron’s showing is a marked improvement from the third place finish some polls projected him having in December, a month after he declared his independent presidential bid. At the time, Macron was viewed as a political novice— one who, despite having briefly served as economy minister in President François Hollande’s government, vowed to break away from what he described as an obsolete, clan-based political system by launching his own centrist political movement En Marche!, or “On the Move!”

“I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long,” Macron told a crowd of supporters Saturday in Lyon, France’s third largest city and industrial center, echoing calls he made to bridge the left and the right at the onset of his campaign.

The call for unity may favor Macron. Benoît Hamon’s victory in the Socialist Party primary last month, in which he defeated Valls, the favored candidate, signaled a strong rebuke of the party’s direction under Hollande, the deeply unpopular president who declined to seek re-election after his approval rating slumped to record lows. Hamon’s has been dubbed the “French Jeremy Corbyn,” for the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, or the “French Bernie Sanders,” for the U.S. senator from Vermont. Critics say the Socialist candidate’s politics make him similar to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Party candidate, whose political faction mainly comprises former Socialists. Mélenchon finished fourth in the 2012 presidential election.

Dr. David Lees, a researcher on French politics at Warwick University in the U.K., told me the dissimilarity between the left-wing candidates could cause more centrist Socialist voters to look elsewhere.

“Macron will be the real winner of the Hamon appointment,” Lees said. “The real issue here lies with the people who are more centrist in the Socialist party, and I suspect what they’ll do now is move towards Macron as a clear centrist candidate and somebody who appeals to left and right, without the same kind of populism and anti-immigrant rhetoric of Marine Le Pen.”

But Macron doesn’t just stand to gain votes on the left. On the right, Republican candidate Fillon’s campaign has been embroiled by allegations he paid his wife, Penelope, and his children a nearly 1-million euro ($1,067,930) salary over more than a decade for being his parliamentary assistants—a job some alleged they did not perform. The center-right candidate, who campaigned on a platform of cutting wasteful spending, reaffirmed he did nothing illegal, and said he would only drop out of the race if a formal investigation were launched. Still, the allegations have hurt him. Fillon, who was originally favored to lead the first round and beat Le Pen in the second round run-off, slumped to third place in the first round in a recent IFOP poll; the poll shows Le Pen finishing first and Macron second.

“It’s been hugely detrimental to his relationship with voters,” Lees said, adding that while traditional Catholic conservatives may likely still vote for Fillon, “center voters who might have voted for Fillon, they might now vote for Macron.”

Macron, though, is not without challenges. Despite presenting himself as an accomplished investment banker and an energetic political outsider, his government experience includes pushing through a number of unpopular business reforms, chief among them his signature Macron Law, which the government, due to its lack of support, had to force through by decree. The law aimed to boost economic growth by, among other things, allowing employers to more easily negotiate salaries and working hours, as well as enable businesses to open more Sundays per year—a departure from French tradition that Sundays should be a day of rest. Moreover, Macron’s independent candidacy runs against the French establishment—without which no presidential candidate has ever won.

But this challenge could also be an asset to Macron. Unlike Le Pen, who analysts have suggested would have a difficult time forming a government given her far-right populist views, Macron’s lack of establishment support would force him to make deals with parties across the spectrum—a feat that’s not improbable given the anticipation that Macron will push a centrist, business-oriented agenda (he has not published his campaign proposals, but is expected to release them this month).

“It’s actually quite a Gaullist idea,” Lees said of Macron’s potential appeal to other parties, referring to Charles de Gaulle, the iconic French leader. “De Gaulle had this idea of not having party politics. He always wanted to stand independently of the party. So it’s quite ironic to have a centrist who’s doing just that, who’s kind of willing to stand individually not part of a party who’s going to try to make these deals on both the left and right, forming some kind of alliance.”

Macron’s ability to sustain momentum will rely heavily on whether Fillon is able to recover from his financial scandal, or if the left will be able to consolidate its base behind Hamon. But it will also depend on whether Macron can avoid scandals himself. The front-runner has already faced allegations he used public funds to finance his campaign, and has recently been linked by Wikileaks’s Julian Assange to Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate, though neither claim has been substantiated—and it’s unclear why ties to Clinton are necessarily a bad thing in France. Russian state media has also taken aim at Macron, publishing an article accusing him of being an “agent” for American banks and a closeted gay man with ties to a “gay lobby.” He has denied the allegations.

“Those who want to spread the idea that I am a fake, that I have hidden lives or something else, first of all, it’s unpleasant for Brigitte,” Macron said Tuesday, referencing his wife, Brigitte Trogneux. Trogneux, Macron’s former high-school teacher, is 24 years his senior—an age difference that has prompted similar speculation about the pair in the past.

Emmanuel Macron poses with his wife, Brigitte Trogneux. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

The reporting on Macron by Russian state media, coupled with their coverage of Fillon’s troubles, have led to worries Moscow might be interfering in France’s elections the way it did in the U.S. There have been reports of similar Russian activity in other European countries with pivotal elections this year; Russian media coverage appears to favor populist candidates in all those elections. In France, that coverage favors Le Pen, who has expressed views sympathetic to Russia—from rejecting the idea Russia’s actions in Ukraine’s Crimea was an invasion to describing Western sanctions against Moscow as “completely stupid.” Le Pen is also known to have borrowed millions of euros from a Russian bank to finance the National Front’s 2014 electoral campaign.

Still, it’s not clear whether the allegations about Macron’s personal life will be damaging ahead of the election. Personal scandals aren’t new among French presidents. François Mitterrand was discovered to have a secret second family. Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended prison sentence for embezzling public funds when he was mayor of Paris. Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, have both been accused of having extramarital affairs, and the former French president was ordered Tuesday to stand trial in a campaign-finance case from 2012. Hollande, the current president, was caught having an affair with Julie Gayet, the French actress—a revelation that caused his popularity to rise by 2 percent.

“His personal life is more interesting than anything political, which appeals to the French sense of some kind of scandal in the private life,” Lees said of Macron. “He’s a colorful candidate, he’s not somebody who’s your average politician.”

Paradoxically, this too could play out in Macron’s favor.