In February 1995, Jacques Chirac was at 12 per cent in the polls. Two months later he was president. Two months is precisely the time remaining before the first round of voting in the 2022 presidential election.
At the moment, President Macron’s advantage looks unassailable: the Economist’s tracker puts his chances of being re-elected at over 80 per cent.
But just how unpredictable might this election be? After a few weeks of relative inertia, there are signs that the traditionally volatile French electorate are beginning to rumble.
Last weekend, the campaigns shifted into a higher gear, and not necessarily to the advantage of the incumbent. In a phenomenon I think it is safe to say is unprecedented in France, a liberty convoy set off for Paris, waving Canadian flags alongside their own, in order to shut the city down, just as truckers shut down Ottawa.
They arrived on Saturday morning to find the city already shut down by the police. Armoured vehicles were deployed on the Champs-Élysées. The city’s gateways were closed by cops with machine guns. Protesters who managed to get into the city were arrested for demonstrating illegally. Tear gas was liberally sprayed, forcing diners and their children to flee from restaurants.
Every minute of this was documented on social media and it was not pretty. It looked more like Belarus than France. The president himself remained invisible at home; he’s been busy strutting the international stage, dealing with Putin.
Campaigning continued without him. In Paris on Sunday afternoon Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, held a rally at the vast Zenith entertainment hall. Even her stalwarts had to admit it did not go well.
She gave a limpid speech attempting to tack to the right on immigration and security, but she sounded like she didn’t believe what she was saying.
Pécresse is said to be consulting the former socialist president François Hollande, of all people. That has added to the incoherence of her message.
She’s going nowhere in the polls, hovering around 15 per cent, neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. She’s by no means guaranteed a ticket to round two. Although if she gets there, she could win, since, for all her faults, many might prefer her to another five years of Macron.
Le Pen had another horrible weekend, More and more of her supporters and allies are defecting to Zemmour. Her party’s only Senator in the Rassemblement National, Stephane Ravier, is the latest and highest-profile so far. Le Pen is static at best in the polls and it’s almost certain this will be her last campaign.
Anne Hidalgo, red-green candidate of the once mighty socialist party, has become a huge embarrassment and is below 2 per cent in some private polling. The only double-digit leftist is Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far left lane. He attracted a big crowd in Montpellier at the weekend although nobody realistically expects him to make it to round two.
Still, there is a detectable odour of incipient panic in the Macron camp as things currently are not going to plan. The war in Africa is turning into a disaster, many people have had enough of his vaccination passports, and his freelance mission to Moscow was mainly embarrassing.
Vladimir Putin said after Macron scuttled away that listening to the French president drone on and on was like torture. Many French voters feel the same way.
Macron has been scattering promises of new spending across the land like confetti. He still enjoys a surprising amount of ardent support from much of the French and international media, but there is some concern even in his inner circle that he is overplaying his hand. Moreover, the influence of his conventional media enablers has waned under a powerful competitive tidal wave of hostile social media.
The only candidate looking stronger going into the last eight weeks of the campaign is Zemmour, still attracting defectors from both Le Pen’s camp and Pécresse, stabilising in the polls, still attracting wildly enthusiastic crowds at his meetings. His campaign stuttered in the polls in late December and January but is rising again. Yesterday Zemmour had a 40 minute phone call with a certain Donald Trump, who reportedly told him: ‘To win, never change your line. Never give in. The media will think you are brutal. Never change if you want to win. Keep your authenticity and your courage.’Given Trump himself overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to win the presidency in 2016, those words will give hope to many of Zemmour’s team.
What’s remarkable is that on the eve of the election only three candidates – Macron, Pécresse and Hidalgo – have even qualified to be on the ballot, which now requires a public declaration of sponsorship from an elected official. That’s not easy to get. Many mayors say they fear sponsoring candidates not approved by the local political hierarchies, who control the flow of subsidies without which municipal government is impossible.
‘If I sponsor Zemmour, I’ll be sitting on the roundabout,’ says one mayor, pointing his thumb in the direction of Toulouse, where the socialist party controls the regional government (and all the money).
Le Pen, Zemmour and Mélenchon still haven’t got the necessary mayoral sponsorships to qualify. Something is going to have to give. French democracy will look Iranian if the most popular candidates are eliminated in advance.
The question that may nonetheless remain in the end is the eternal one facing French voters: which candidate do they despise the least? That still points to Macron, since at least his detestability is at least a known quantity. But another bad week or two of news for the president, another humiliation on the world stage, and that could start to change.
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