By Justine Guérin
Politics are changing around the globe, and France is no exception as an independent outsider who rejects the traditional labels of left and right has emerged as a front-runner in a highly unpredictable presidential race with far-reaching implications for Europe and the world.
A 39-year-old former investment banker, Emmanuel Macron has positioned himself as a centrist outside France’s powerful political parties. He has tapped into the disenchantment and fatigue with the establishment that is benefiting populists in many European countries and which helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
But Macron is no populist, and polls predict that if, as expected, he makes it to the May 7 run-off round and faces far-right leader Marine Le Pen — France’s answer to Trump — he will win hands down.
A survey by Elabe polling that was released on March 2 gave 27 percent of the vote in the April 23 first round to Le Pen, compared to 24 percent for Macron. But the same survey had Macron trouncing Le Pen in a run-off, 62 percent to 38 percent.
Macron, who served as economy minister in a government under outgoing Socialist President François Hollande before breaking away to prepare his candidacy for president, is widely seen as a breath of fresh air in France’s hide-bound political system. He is benefiting from infighting on the left and a scandal that has jeopardized the chances of conservative François Fillon.
Unlike the nationalist Le Pen who is calling for radical change, Macron does not favor pulling France from the European Union or the euro currency.
His mainstream position on Europe, coupled with proposals for moderate economic reforms, explain in part why, if Macron reaches the run-off round against the fiery National Front leader, he could well bridge the gaping left-right cleavage and win the support of those who above all want to deprive Le Pen and her anti-immigrant policies from victory.
Emphasis on attracting youth
For months Macron weathered criticism that he was opting for personality politics, eschewing the parties that traditionally have chosen French candidates, and had no platform.
Then last week — only seven weeks before the first round — he finally unveiled a manifesto that he said would transform France by overhauling its pension and welfare systems.
France has lagged behind Germany and Britain in economic growth, and Fillon has promised a set of liberal policies that hearken back to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Less of a free-market liberal than Fillon, Macron would loosen the 35-hour limit on the work week while keeping the retirement age at 62. Fillon would raise the pension age to 65 while Le Pen, eager to attract union voters and public servants, would reduce it to 60.
Macron has promised to modernize France’s economy by integrating robots alongside factory workers. While he would foster “green” start-ups, he has shown no signs of wanting to reduce France’s longstanding dependence on nuclear energy.
Macron is encouraging young people, particularly women, to run for political office — helping to attract large numbers of youths to his movement.
He has emphasized the importance of educational opportunities, especially for underprivileged youth, and proposes lowering the average class size and paying teachers more. Macron envisions giving 500 euros to each young person at age 18 to spend on culture including museums, books or theaters.
In a sign of the kind of opposition he could face, traditionalists say his proposal to decentralize the educational system could end up widening a gap between wealthy schools and institutions in underprivileged neighborhoods.
Consistent with his effort to appeal to young voters while strengthening the EU, Macron favors expanding the bloc’s Erasmus student exchange program.
A centrist alternative with the staying power of youth?
Turning to foreign affairs and the Syrian crisis, Macron believes Europe has a historical responsibility and moral duty to welcome refugees — a position in stark contrast with Le Pen’s commitment to curb the influx of foreigners, whether refugees or migrants.
To burnish his foreign policy credentials, Macron has recently traveled abroad. During a visit to Algeria he sparked criticism, particularly on the political right, when he said that France’s colonization of the North African country was “a crime against humanity.”
Underscoring his centrist status, a few days later he outraged many on the left when he defended critics of same-sex marriage, which was allowed by a Socialist government in 2013.
So Macron runs the risk of all centrist candidates: alienating voters on both sides of the left-right divide.
Still, while polls are not always perfect predictors, Macron has emerged as a leading contender to succeed Hollande, and his appeal to young people outside party politics could give him staying power.
In the end, if he makes the run-off round, voters keen to prevent the populist, anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen from becoming president could rally around this outsider who is urging France to look to the future.
Justine Guérin is a French second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying International Relations. She is passionate about French politics, feminist activism and international conflicts, and has a particular interest in Indian history and society.