Author: MUJTABA RAHMAN
Emmanuel Macron, the independent liberal candidate who is shaking up France’s presidential election, currently enjoys a commanding lead over the center-right nominee, François Fillon. This has put him in the dangerous position of favorite and made him the darling of Europe’s liberal establishment.
But this campaign has been particularly unkind to favorites. And a closer look at Macron’s polling — and the limited resonance he generates on social media — show how he could also fall short of expectations. The race for the Élysée is still wide open — and with it, the risk Marine Le Pen wins the keys to the palace.
Macron’s popularity as President François Hollande’s economy minister gave him a core base of supporters as soon as he launched his grassroots political movement “En Marche” last April. But the troubles of the center left and center right have been the true drivers of Macron’s rise in the polls since he threw his hat in the ring for the presidency in October.
The selection of hard-left candidate Benoît Hamon in the center-left primaries prompted many moderate Socialist Party (PS) supporters to flock to Macron. And while the ongoing corruption scandal dogging Fillon has galvanized the support of some loyal voters, the French conservative candidate’s erratic response has also pushed moderates to switch allegiance to Macron.
This has been reflected in the polls. According to Ipsos, since late January, we have seen Macron’s popularity increase by close to 10 points, from 17-18 percent to between 25-26 percent. Over the same period, Fillon lost 8 points. Since his nomination, Benoît Hamon has flatlined below 15 percent — a historically low result for an official candidate of the center-left PS. This suggests many Socialist voters were already drawn to Macron before their party landed on a candidate.
Still, Macron’s electorate is demonstrably fickle, untested and difficult to measure. His alliance with veteran centrist François Bayrou boosted his credibility in the eyes of moderate voters. And Manuel Valls’ pledge of support may bring another wave of Socialist voters into the fold. But it’s important to remember that up to 50 percent of Macron’s supporters are still not sure they will vote for him in the first round.
Macron has tried to position himself as an anti-establishment candidate, but his efforts have lacked credibility. Social media users have consistently criticized Macron as a pet of the mainstream media. On the left, social media users associate him with the negative policies during Hollande’s term, such as the liberalization reforms that undermined the economic security of ordinary French voters. On the right, they frequently call attention to Hollande’s soft and uninspiring economic reforms.
Macron’s attempts to firm up voters’ commitment have had mixed results. According to Eurasia Group’s social media analysis — combining both volume-based and linguistic sentiment — Macron has not been able to wrap his economic policies into a coherent or compelling narrative, despite it being his original area of expertise. His proposals are not connecting with citizens — social media users are on balance either critical or indifferent to them.
Le Pen’s economic policies may be confusing and less coherent, but she has framed them — on parallel currencies, a renegotiation of France’s EU membership and a potential referendum on the euro — in a way that resonates with citizen’s concerns, promising “intelligent protectionism” against the uncontrollable forces of globalization.
This matters, as concerns about unemployment and the economy top voters’ anxieties in this election, with about 90 percent of voters singling it out as the most important issue. Even on security and immigration, which also rank among voters’ most pressing issues, Le Pen is seen as the more credible candidate. Voters respond both more positively and more strongly to Le Pen’s hawkish security statements than to Macron’s plans to fight terrorism at home.
Mainstream parties will reluctantly endorse Macron but, having failed to make the second round themselves, their legitimacy will be damaged in the eyes of longstanding voters. If Macron does make it to the second round, he will therefore not be able to rely on the “republican pact” that paved the way for Jacques Chirac’s resounding victory against Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002.
If Macron beats center-right nominee Fillon to face off against Le Pen, there’s no guarantee his conservative voters will break for the young centrist. Polls already show a growing group of Fillon voters prepared to support Le Pen if their candidate doesn’t make the runoff. Over the past month, the share of Fillon voters telling pollsters they will vote for Le Pen over Macron has jumped from 25 to 30 percent, with 31 percent saying they would abstain or don’t know.
Macron, as a pro-European liberal educated in the best public administration schools with private banking experience, embodies everything Le Pen has railed against for the past five years in her efforts to broaden her base.
Macron could turn out to be the ideal opponent for the National Front leader. She will easily turn the second round into a referendum on the status quo and could stake out a convincing position against the EU, the establishment and especially globalization — a process French voters have been hostile to for much longer than the British or Americans. Macron’s youthful optimism may not be enough to reconcile them with it.