France’s least hated candidate? How Emmanuel Macron looks set for election victory

He has a mediocre approval rating and faces a prickly electorate angry over Covid restrictions, a perpetually sluggish economy and an out-of-touch political elite.

But with less than eight weeks to go before French presidential elections that many regard as a crucial crossroads for both France and Europe, incumbent Emmanuel Macron finds himself in a relatively enviable position.

His opponents on the right are fragmented between three candidates fighting to distinguish themselves – in large part over how tough they will be on the country’s beleaguered Muslim minority.

His contenders on the left are even weaker, unable to captivate the electorate after years of haemorrhaging support to the far right and the centre.

Meanwhile, the French economy – though hampered by structural problems – has rebounded from Covid, boasting 7 per cent growth last year, the highest rate in 52 years.

“[Macron] is fortunate because the right is divided and the left in disarray,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe.

“Most of the odds are in Macron’s favour,” she told The Independent.

Macron, a 44-year-old centrist and once-obscure former economy minister, emerged as a last-minute frontrunner in the 2017 elections, defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen after ending the duopoly of the centre-left and centre-right that had dominated French politics since the 1950s.

Voters hate Macron the most, except for all the candidates they hate even more Emma Pearson, editor and politics expert

He could now become the first French president re-elected to office since Jacques Chirac in 2001. But if he fails to win, his legacy could be tarnished as the flawed centrist who cleared the way for the far-right.

“The last election we saw the smashing up of the two-party system,” said Emma Pearson, editor of the English-language news website and co-host of a podcast on French politics.

“We will see what happens, whether Macron can be re-elected, or whether he’s broken the system only to pave the way for more far-right parties.”

With Angela Merkel retired and Germany in a state of transition, France’s upcoming presidential elections are also more crucial for Europe than ever in recent history.

Macron addresses students at the North Rhine-Westphalia university in Aachen, Germany, in 2018 (AFP/Getty)

Voters will not only decide who sits in the Elysee Palace, but also who will likely set the agenda in Brussels for the European Union, and for continental Europe as it faces off against renewed Russian assertiveness.

The first round of the elections will be held 10 April; if, as widely expected, no candidate secures an outright majority, the two top contenders will face off in a second round on 24 April.

On both the right and left, however, there is ferocious competition.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate of the populist left, is polling at around 10 per cent and stands little chance of making it to the second round.

Former justice minister Christiane Taubira and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, candidates of the once mighty Socialists, are polling below 5 per cent, lower than Green party candidate Yannick Jadot or the Communist party’s Fabien Roussel.

Taubira won a January primary election meant to unify the left, but none of the other candidates agreed to honour the result, which could have catapulted a left-leaning candidate to the second round of the vote.

The presidential campaign is not very connected to society, at all Christopher Bickerton, Cambridge University

The more closely watched competition is the three-way battle on the right between traditional conservative Valerie Pecresse, far-right candidate Le Pen, and the extreme-right candidacy of columnist Eric Zemmour.

All three candidates appear to be falling over each other in attempts to employ ever more provocative anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Pecresse, at a recent rally, vowed to build a wall to keep migrants out of Europe, and has embraced the “great replacement” theory arguing that immigrants were trying to displace France’s “natives”.

Supporters of presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse during a campaign rally in Paris (EPA-EFE)

Zemmour has vowed that the call to prayer would be banned in France were he elected, a clear violation of the country’s constitutional principles dating back to the 1789 revolution.

For her part, Le Pen, the scion of France’s far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, has sought to rebrand herself as more moderate, and recently accused Zemmour of being in league with “pagans, and a few Nazis”.

Tallied together, the candidates of the right add up to an impressive 45 per cent of the electorate, according to multiple recent polls.

But what is most striking to many observers is the 10 per cent of voters who remain undecided, and those who find they no longer have a political home as the party system that once dominated the country fades away.

“There is a very large pool of voters who are quite far to the right,” said Christopher Bickerton, a professor of European politics at Cambridge University.

“We’re seeing a process of fragmentation. The centre-right no longer dominates. The far right has competition. The campaign as a whole has fallen flat. It’s not very connected to society at all.”

French far-right candidate Eric Zemmour addresses his supporters in Lille (EPA-EFE)

Indeed, the candidates appear to be addressing few of the top issues that concern voters, including rising prices, Covid restrictions, healthcare, eldercare and childcare. Last weekend, thousands of protesters descended on Paris and other French cities to protest Covid rules and soaring costs.

“Some of the major issues and major debates are not being addressed in the debates,” said Gaspard Estrada of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po.

“You have these right-wing and far-right candidates trying to frame the agenda based on topics such as migration and identity. Meanwhile, the left is focused on culinary issues such as eating meat or not. That’s far away from the real issues that concern the French people.”

Balfour predicted further political trouble ahead for France as it begins to curtail the use of fossil fuels, a pressing subject that is not being addressed by politicians.

“The energy transition and the climate goals that Europe is setting up for itself will entail a transition, and there will be winners and losers,” she said. “It is going to be politically very delicate.”

Likewise, few candidates other than Macron are grappling with the foreign policy and security implications of Moscow’s gambit with Ukraine. In fact, Melenchon, Zemmour and Le Pen remain strongly pro-Kremlin.

So far Macron has managed to keep initiative and set the agenda Gaspard Estrada, Paris Institute of Political Studies

In part, Macron’s strength is his weakness.

He is perceived as lacking strong convictions or a real movement. His party, En Marche, began more or less as a polling consultancy that sought to learn voters’ concerns and tailor Macron’s positions to them. It never really evolved into a real organisation.

An absence of a real political grouping behind him has allowed him to adjust his stances according to the public mood, for example, by shifting to the right on migration and Islam when he needed to blunt the rise of Le Pen, and then shift back in recent months toward the left.

But he also has barely any substantive grassroots support, much less a party infrastructure to encourage voters on election day.

“En Marche is essentially just a name, a very personalised vehicle for him,” said Bickerton. “Because he was successful there was a big move to make this into a party, but it’s never really recovered from that.”

One remote possibility is that the electorate is so fragmented that two right-wing candidates could enter the second round, with French voters who have lukewarm feelings about Macron voting for leftist candidates in the first round.

A placard reads ‘Macron, we’ll p*** you off too’ as members of the ‘Freedom Convoy 2022’ gather in Nice (EPA-EFE)

Macron has yet to begin campaigning in earnest, likely in an attempt to present himself as presidential and floating above the fray.

In addition to being president, France is also rotating president of the European Union’s council, giving him a measure of gravitas, but also potentially framing him as aloof from the concerns of the average French person.

Macron himself came to power on the momentum of an insurgent campaign against an entrenched elite, and a similar dynamic could fell him.

“So far he has managed to keep initiative and set the agenda,” said Estrada. “This does not mean that the numbers can’t change. The panorama can change dramatically in the next weeks and months.”

The president’s approval rating currently stands at about 35-40 per cent, according to recent opinion polls, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Still, though few Macron voters may be enthusiastic about him, public support for him at this point is still far higher than it was for his two predecessors, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

“He is not well loved, and it’s definitely not cool to admit you like Macron,” said Pearson. “They hate Macron the most, except for all the candidates they hate even more.”