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In roughly 18 months’ time, the voters of France will head to the polls to elect their president through to 2027. In this age of coronavirus that has swept around the globe these past months, and a pandemic of populism that has also been transmitted across much of Europe these past years, the thought of 2027 seems far away.

But if, you are like Emmanuel Macron and seeking a second term in the Elysee Palace, the next 18 months are indeed critical when it comes to re-election prospects.

Let’s face it, for any leader facing a disillusioned and economically hurting electorate — who hasn’t been sideswiped by the pandemic never mind populism these past times? — the task of re-election is daunting indeed. And that is the challenge now facing the 42-year-old French president.

Desperate times it seems call for desperate measures. How else then can you interpret Macron’s belated habitation of the political spectrum normally occupied by right-wing panderers to populist policies? In recent days President Macron has seemingly abandoned his more liberal and centrist ideals and at least gently blown on embers of a sense of pre-existing Islamophobia that rests just under the veneer of French society.

Since coming to power in the spring of 2017 — gosh, that seems so long ago now — as a fresh-faced pan-European liberal with a mandate to re-energise France’ politics and economics, Macron has met a wall of resistance on the left to his plans to roll back the benefits, regulations and social programmes that underpin his nation’s society. But that is a society in which many feel excluded. For almost as long as Macron has touted economic reforms, he also met the stubborn resistance of les gilets jeunes — the yellow jackets — who gather weekly to protest his makeover.

Macron was preceded to office by Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, both one-term presidents, both unable to building a winning coalition for re-election from their bases on the left and right respectively. That won’t have gone unnoticed by the current holder of the office.

Macron’s recent expression of populist sentiment seems to have been stirred by the heinous murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in the northern Paris suburb of Egrany. An 18-year-old extremist was shot dead by police in the aftermath of Paty’s beheading and about a dozen others arrested. The murder was the act of a deluded and deranged teen brainwashed by extremism and misguided by mentors. The killing sparked demonstrations of solidarity with and for others in the teaching profession, and Paty has been posthumously awarded France’s highest civilian honour by Macron. It needs to be noted that the wife of the French president is also a teacher, his dearly loved grandmother too, and the profession has been cited by him as being a very strong influence on his formative years.

Paty’s murder has exposed a raw nerve within the French republic that seeks to balance the rights of the individual in a framework of liberty, equality and fraternity, a balance that for now seems out of kilter. A fear of Muslims, acts of Islamophobia, a growing institutional mistrust of the faithful — all find expression in France now with the seemingly tacit acquiescence of the French presidency.

For generations of Muslim immigrants from the former French colonies of the Middle East and North Africa, for new arrivals from the Levant and Sahel fleeing violence and conflict, the welcome mat in France feels decidedly worn out.

Since Paty’s murder, Muslim women have been attacked in a series of incidents from visiting the Eiffel Tower to riding public transport. On both sides of this ideological and secular divide, emotions are running high. On Thursday, the whole sad chapter escalated further, with a knifeman killing three and injuring several others in a church in Nice. An extremist act but begotten of intolerance.

For sure, six decades of Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen rhetoric have helped to ensure that the crowded suburbs of French cities remain a tinderbox of social problems. Is it really a right time for the French president to be ready to light a candle in the cause of populism?

Pardon the grammar of you will, but it didn’t used to be like this. Those principles of equality, liberty and fraternity have been parked now in the name of electoral expediency. En Marche! — the political movement began in the spring of 2016 by Macron as he laboured at the heart of Hollande’s socialist government, promised a breath of fresh air in a political system that forces voters to choose between candidates of the left and right over two rounds of voting.

Aged just 39, Macron became the youngest president in French history. He never held elected office before, worked on Hollande’s 2012 campaign, was appointed his deputy secretary-general and became the economics minister in 2014. No, French ministers don’t have to be members of the National Assembly. In launching En Marche!, Macron said his aim was not to bring people to either the right or the left. That may have convinced a majority of French voters to select him over Marine Le Pen in the final round of voting in 2017, this time around it seems as if winning at all costs seems to be the determining factor.

What’s all the more surprising given Macron’s airing of populist sentiment is that he now seems at odds with the outlook of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Over the past three years, through the turmoil of the refugee crisis, Brexit and that not-so-small matter of the future of the euro and the debt crisis in Greece and southern European Union states, both Macron and Merkel have formed a strategic partnership at a time when Europe’s natural place was threatened by forces in Russia, across the Atlantic and elsewhere.

But things are changing too. Soon Merkel will be retired, there will very likely be a new leadership in Washington and Brexit seems irrelevant now — as do most other things — in the wake of coronavirus. After all, it’s all about pandemics, politics and polemics now.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe