Macron could build a better France

Despite troubles at home, the French President has made a positive contribution globally, including in the Middle East

A screen shows French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. AP
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Some French voters are questioning President Emmanuel Macron’s strategy in this year's presidential elections. As notably anti-establishment parties toured the country before last week's first round of voting, Mr Macron held just one rally, only confirmed his candidacy last month and refused to participate in television debates. Nonetheless, he has, for now, come out on top, four percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Marine Le Pen. But the race is far from over. One leading poll predicts Mr Macron beating her by the narrowest of margins, 51 to 49 per cent.

There are two explanations for his light-touch approach. One is, indeed, confidence. Mr Macron comfortably defeated Ms Le Pen in 2017, whose usual political territory, the far-right, has been encroached on this year by the even more populist Eric Zemmour. In that same election, he also resoundingly defeated the country's traditional political parties, the Socialists and Republicans, who, after decades of supremacy, show no sign of recovering this year.

The other could be, simply, that he is extremely busy. Though many will raise eyebrows at the notion that any world leader is too busy to try to keep their job, if there is one, it may be Mr Macron. He has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to end the crisis in Ukraine. In the weeks and months leading up to the conflict, he visited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, more than any other leader. Since the invasion, he has taken the lead in forming the EU's response, one that will be of huge geopolitical significance given the organisation's proximity to the warzone and its reliance on Russian energy.

It is little surprise he chose to do so. Some argue that Mr Macron is far more at home on the global stage than he is in domestic politics. The Middle East is a good example. In the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut blast, he was warmly welcomed twice by many Lebanese people, hailed as an important international ally in their ongoing, seemingly endless quest to build a less corrupt, more prosperous country. The following year he played a leading role in organising a summit in Baghdad that brought together GCC powers and Iran and conducted major naval drills in the Mediterranean. In the disastrous western withdrawal from Afghanistan, France read the situation better than its allies and began to withdraw its citizens long before other countries. He has even broached the sensitive subject of France's colonial legacy in Algeria.

Taken together, he has managed to cast himself as a leading western statesman at a time when many of his traditional counterparts seem to be stepping back, be it US President Joe Biden's reluctance to engage with the Middle East or Boris Johnson's pursuit of Brexit.

But winning friends abroad is arguably easier than galvanising voters at home. Inflation is at a 13-year high, in large part due to rapidly rising energy prices. Even national supermarkets are dimming lights to reduce consumption. Throughout Mr Macron's time in power, France has seen protests and strikes – particularly violent ones took place last summer over the introduction of Covid-19 vaccine passports – terror attacks and controversies over how the state treats its large Muslim community. Mr Macron has stated his willingness to encourage an "enlightened" practice of the faith in France, a sensitive policy that, while with good intentions, must not further alienate significant sections of France's Muslim community.

With these challenges in mind, it is little surprise that voter turnout has been down 4 per cent on 2017 levels. Even more worryingly, it also goes some way to explaining why a new, increasingly aggressive type of the far-right is growing in the country.

Ultimately, it is navigating these issues and trends that will keep him in power. But Macron is still the best choice for a stable, prosperous France, especially given the firebrands he is running against, who push far more divisive agendas. He can beat them by convincing voters that he still represents a positively radical and new type of politics, the same that saw him break France's political mould in 2017. After five years in power, his main mission will be maintaining this bold momentum, in a manner that brings as much of the country along as possible, and, crucially, that provides a tolerant alternative to divisive factions that are gaining ground.

Published: April 12, 2022, 3:00 AM