Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron Image Credit: Reuters

“Google it, mate” — such was the response of an Australian politician who bristled at a journalist testing him on wage data, earning laughter as he rebuked such “gotcha” questions.

The scene has echoes in France’s presidential runoff vote, due later this month, which has seen Emmanuel Macron scramble for votes to widen his lead against far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen. His current average polling lead of 53% is slim, and seemingly at odds with his economic track record — let alone his rival’s toxic political background.

Shouldn’t the numbers speak for themselves? The data shows France motoring ahead on job creation, with unemployment at a 15-year low and a growth rate outpacing Germany’s. Purchasing power — the leading concern for French voters — rose under Macron more than his two most recent predecessors.

Sovereignty at risk

That’s on top of a pandemic that saw Macron adopt a “whatever-it-takes” policy to protect people’s jobs in a country that already ranked as one of the most equal in the developed world (by income). While Macron’s campaign pledges involve more spending, independent think tank Institut Montaigne ranks Le Pen’s programme as being twice as costly and impossible to enact without putting the country’s finances and its sovereignty at risk.

Yet it’s Le Pen’s focus on inflation — alongside far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who narrowly missed the runoff — that has resonated with workers, the under-60s, and those with less money put aside at the end of the month. Le Pen has campaigned on purchasing power, promising tax cuts on energy and essential goods, and she has cast Macron — whose top demographic is the over-60s — as out of touch.

Even in areas where the unemployment rate has fallen, such as former mining heartlands, Le Pen’s message has cut through. The residents of the northern town of Lens, where she won a majority in 2017 and beat Macron in Sunday’s first round, told Bloomberg News that the far-right is occupying a space once occupied by the left. The rising cost of gas, childcare and transport is what dominates — even as employment rises.

Magic money tree

A fact-checker might point out that France’s inflation rate of 5.1% is lower than many of its neighbours, thanks in part to Macron measures such as 100-euro ($109) handouts for 38 million people and a cap on gas and electricity prices.

Whatever the relative benefit, it hasn’t stopped a sizeable chunk of Melenchon voters — 28% of them, according to one poll — from leaning toward voting Le Pen, who is scrambling to woo the far left with a shake of what politicians used to sniffily refer to as the magic money tree.

To be sure, while a bigger slice of Melenchon voters say they will vote Macron, the result is an election vulnerable to political doublethink: A far-right candidate with ties to Vladimir Putin, waging a left-wing campaign with budget giveaways to soothe the financial after-effects of Putin’s war.

It’s an extension of the anti-establishment mindset behind the Yellow Vest protests of 2018 and 2019 against fuel taxes, which united supporters of Melenchon and Le Pen. Neither left, nor right, nor the incumbent.

If Macron is going to widen his lead against Le Pen, he will need an offensive strategy on the economy that goes beyond highlighting Le Pen’s far-right roots.

Persuasive public image

Even as her plans threaten to blow a hole in European integration, and as politicians from both sides of the aisle call for a “republican front” against her, polls show she commands a more persuasive public image on purchasing power than Macron.

He has already rightly started to water down one of his headline pledges — to raise the retirement age to 65 — which gave Le Pen an easy opening to tack left. Yet he still risks stepping on rakes, as his entourage offers evermore complex concessions around a pension reform that is manifestly unpopular — and unlikely to see the light of day.

French citizens want protection, not reform. If Macron wants to woo more left-leaning voters, he can send clearer messages on taxes, pensions and the state of future spending — including inflation-fighting measures that have only been put in place temporarily. With public opinion in a volatile state, the risk of another shake of the magic money tree by Le Pen is real.

History offers some parallels, analysts Bruno Tertrais and Joseph de Weck suggest. In 1981, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in the second round despite winning the first; at a time of war and inflation, the French were less swayed by warnings of the risks of price controls or Russian influence. Political cynicism also saw voters switching allegiance from right to left.

This is a tight race. Inflation is Le Pen’s best friend. If Macron isn’t careful, it could become his worst enemy.


Lionel Laurent is a political columnist covering the European Union and France