220421 France debate
A picture shows a TV screen displaying a live televised between French President and La Republique en Marche (LREM) party candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron (L) and French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (R), broadcasted on French TV channels TF1 and France 2, in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, ahead of the second round of France's presidential election. Image Credit: AFP

Five years ago, a then relatively new politician, Emmanuel Macron, came from relative obscurity and became the President of France.

At the time he seemed fresh, full of ideas and energy — just the tonic for French voters who had become jaded and more than a little tired of the ineffectiveness of Francois Hollande. And five years previously they had turned to Nicolas Sarkozy for redemption.

The reality is that French voters have been restless for the past two decades, and no incumbent has been returned to the Elysee Palace since 2002.

Come late Sunday evening UAE time, Macron will know if he becomes the first to break that run of electoral defeats stretching back 20 years.

Five years ago, Macron cruised to an easy win over Marine Le Pen of the then National Front. It wasn’t ever close, with the former Minister of the Economy notching two second-round votes for every one the right-wing leader won.

If many had expected Le Pen to pack up and leave the work of the party founded by her father to someone else, they were simply wrong. Le Pen dusted herself off, rebuilt the party from the ground up, rebranded in at National Rally, and toned down many of the policies that were a turn-off to most French voters.

A very close race

This time around, the race will be much closer but polls put Macron ahead — not by the 33 percentage points that was his margin of victory in 2017 — between 5 and 7 percentage points.

It might just be too close for comfort.

Why? Well, for starters, some of the shine has rubbed off Macron. The first three years in the Elysee were beset by the size of the task facing him in trying to reform the French economy. Pension and social welfare reforms are difficult to achieve without alienating the strong French Union movement. And then there were gilets jeaune — the yellow jackets — who turned their ad hoc protests over rising fuel and road toll prices into a national movement that turned out week after week across towns and villages in France.

And then the pandemic hit. Macron imposed strict lockdowns, held the death toll down in the initial wave of infections, and then provided strong support for the economy as it tried to revive in the subsequent waves and necessary restrictions.

Winning re-election is always difficult for any incumbent, but Macron has also the benefit of being the leader of a nation that is playing a key role in trying to end the crisis in Ukraine. In other words, Macron has the benefit of being presidential, not pure campaigning.

But Le Pen is different this time out. Gone is the relatively naive persona that was ripped apart by Macron in a televised debate that undermined her limited knowledge of economics.

This time around she has abandoned the more right-wing and contentious policies, presenting a kindle, gentler face of ultra French nationalism. It would stay in the European Union if she is elected, so too would the euro remain as the unit of currency. And instead of France leaving the EU, she would try and rebuild it from within — relying on the support of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary to do so.

Yes, Macron is expected to win — and likely will — but the margin of victory will be much smaller.

Since Macron’s then-new En Marche movement strode to power, the political landscape has evolved significantly. Today, the incumbent represents the establishment, and winning over an angry, divided France to keep the far-right out will be a much harder task.

There’s little love lost between French Prime Minister Jean Castex and Macron, with the PM saying that the president is not guaranteed to win come Sunday.

“The game is not done and dusted,” Castex told France radio.

Advantage Macron

Three recent polls for the second-round runoff put Macron at the highest level since before the first round, with an average score of 55 per cent up more than a point from Friday and more than three points from an average of five polls before the first round.

And the crisis in Ukraine is playing a large part in Macron’s narrow lead. Before Russian troops moved into Ukraine, Le Pen made no secret of her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Europe 1 radio earlier this week that Le Pen would “hand France’s sovereignty to Vladimir Putin and to Russia” if she was elected.

The EU has also tossed a hand grenade into the last week of the campaign, noting that Le Pen and party members faced corruption investigations over the way they allegedly handled and claimed expenses when they were elected to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. For her opponents, it provides evidence that she can’t be trusted.

For her supporters, it merely provided evidence that the EU itself can’t be trusted and is interfering in the internal election campaign of a member state — which is why Le Pen says it needs to be reformed.

Le Pen too has previously indicated that she would pull France — the only European member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation with a nuclear deterrent — out of the Brussels-based military alliance.

Both candidates on Sunday are trying to convince voters who backed far-left leader Jean Luc Melenchon that they can fulfil his ambitions — he came third in the first round on April 10 with about 22 per cent of the vote.

He hasn’t endorsed Macron. But he has warned that a vote for Le Pen would be dangerous.

“You will make a colossal mistake if you vote for Madame Le Pen. I don’t tell you to vote for Macron, search inside your heads what’s best, but don’t do this,” he told BFM TV.

The intrigue merely serves to add another element of uncertainty to the outcome of the contest. But as things stand now, it is Macron’s to lose.