The French presidential race presents Macron with a daunting challenge

On the surface, things are looking up for the endlessly ambitious Emmanuel Macron, president of France. With the recent installation of the fledgling German government of Olaf Scholz, Macron, at last, finds himself the senior partner in the pivotal Franco-German alliance, finally able to try to harness France’s over-sized geostrategic ambitions to the world-class German economic motor.

While the new Green German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has ambitions to remake Berlin’s foreign policy in a more pro-Atlanticist, activist direction, German foreign policy is traditionally made in the chancellery. If this holds true, Scholz — the Finance Minister in the last Merkel government — and his immediate allies can be counted on to continue with Germany’s weak, commercially-driven, neutralist foreign policy. This is all the better for Macron, who yearns to stride the world stage as a major player.

Even the United States, the perpetual foe of France’s self-aggrandizing instincts, seems to have fallen into line. Following the furor over the AUKUS defense treaty between Australia, the UK, and the US, in which Canberra unceremoniously ditched defense ties with Paris of favor of closer links with the Anglosphere, the Biden administration has raced to mollify a furious Macron. The practical result of this American charm offensive was Washington’s new rhetorical support for Macron’s dream of an independent European defense entity. This sea change has left the foreign and strategic policy field open to Paris.

But if things are looking up internationally, domestically mortal threats to Macron’s regime are brewing. With the French presidential contest set to get into full swing in the new year, the most recent polling numbers present Macron with a real challenge to his re-election prospects. The latest Politico poll of polls of December 15th found Macron with 24 percent of the likely first-round votes. Newly anointed Gaullist Party candidate Valerie Pecresse came next at 17 percent, with far-right populists Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour just behind at 16 percent and 13 percent respectively. At present, Macron would make it through to the climactic second round of voting, but who his opponent would be is unknown.

What is clear is that, as the French presidential campaign gets underway, there are two scenarios potentially impacting Macron’s re-election, one secondary and one primary. The French president must have been thrilled when television star Zemmour entered the fray, as he is sure to split the far-right vote in the first round, diluting its overall threat to his presidency, as it is inconceivable that Le Pen and Zemmour (drawing on the same pool of voters) can both thrust ahead of Macron in the initial voting round.

This leaves the French President in the comfortable position of taking on a single far-right challenger in the second round, a result whose outcome would not be in doubt. For example, Politico’s estimation of present second-round voting intentions finds that he would defeat Le Pen comfortably, by 56-44 percent.

The only drawback to this highly favorable outcome for the Elysee would be that if in beating back Pecresse — a mainstream candidate if ever there was one — Macron so demonized her that Pecresse’s first-round supporters failed to come out in the second round to see off the far-right challenge to the country as a whole. While Pecresse’s supporters in aggregate are highly unlikely to support either Le Pen or Zemmour in the second round, they might be so turned off by Macron’s attacks that they simply stay at home.

A similar process is presently well advanced on the splintered left, where it seems increasingly likely that voters will not show up for second-round voting to put a mainstream rightist in power in order to keep a far-rightist from the Elysee, as they did in the last French presidential election. If this apathy extends to both the Gaullists and the Socialists, the traditional center-right and center-left parties respectively, and with the far-right bound to coalesce around whichever of its two candidates reaches the second round, Macron could find himself in real peril.

However, the second, more likely, political threat to Macron comes directly from Pecresse and the mainstream Gaullist Party itself. Present polling has Pecresse as the president’s likely challenger in the second round of voting. But Politico finds her only a nose behind Macron, presently trailing him by merely 52-48 percent in terms of voting intentions, almost within the margin of error. It is obvious that Pecresse is far more of a threat to Macron’s re-election than any other candidate.

Reasonable, presentable, experienced, and policy-oriented, Pecresse cannot be demonized by Macron as simply dangerously unsuited for the Elysee in the way he can tar both Le Pen and Zemmour.\

Better still, and unlike the personality-driven candidacies of the two far-rightists and Macron himself, Pecresse has a real party behind her, with organizational capacity, fund-raising abilities, and — best of all — longstanding traditional political loyalties throughout the country. Macron is taking on the Gaullist institution in France, and not just another personality.

This is precisely why, at this time of relative international success, the French president must worry about domestic political dangers which could undo all his grandiose hopes, both for himself and his country. 

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.

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