Show caption President Emmanuel Macron holds a press conference following an EU leaders’ summit to discuss Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, at the Palace of Versailles on 11 March. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images France Macron revels in ‘Falklands effect’ as wartime role boosts re-election chances French president has yet to launch his campaign but rivals are finding it tough to compete with the global go-between on Ukraine Kim Willsher in Paris Sat 12 Mar 2022 15.32 GMT Share on Facebook
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This time last year, the French presidential election was set to be a nail-biting race. Opinion polls suggested that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was closing in on Emmanuel Macron, threatening his bid for a second term. One even suggested she might win the first-round vote.
When the hard-right, hawkish Eric Zemmour joined the fray – but before he declared he was running – the political talk was dominated for several weeks by his anti-immigration, anti-Islam programme.
Today, however, all those months of political sound and fury have come to nothing. Less than a month before the election, Macron is now a formidable 12 points ahead of Le Pen, his nearest rival. This is the largest first-round lead since François Mitterrand faced Jacques Chirac in 1988, making Macron’s re-election almost a foregone conclusion.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen takes part in a TV show on the french presidential elections, on 3 March. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
In France, they are calling it the effet Malouines or “Falklands effect”: just as the conflict in the South Atlantic waged by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 led to her dramatic recovery in the polls and subsequent re-election, Macron’s popularity has soared, polls suggest, thanks to his high-profile engagement as Europe’s go-between in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
For Macron’s rivals, the fortnight since Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine has been a particular challenge: unable to criticise the president’s actions on Ukraine for fear of appearing unpatriotic or unsympathetic, and faced with wall-to-wall media coverage of the conflict, they have struggled to drag the electoral agenda back to domestic issues.
Le Monde described this presidential race as a “phantom campaign”– over before it had even begun. “Already overshadowed by the [Covid] health crisis, it seems to have been completely crushed by the war in Ukraine and its repercussions in Europe,” the political reporter Solenn de Royer wrote. “While the news is all about what’s happening in the east and the exchanges between Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskiy or Vladimir Putin, the other candidates have been pushed into second place and are having great difficulty pushing their agendas.”
French presidential elections are notoriously unpredictable – the last two have seen supposedly unbeatable candidates crash out. But for months polls have suggested the most likely outcome of the 10 April vote will see the far-right Rassemblement National candidate Le Pen face Macron in the second round, with Macron winning – a repeat of the 2017 election, though by a narrower margin.
Macron’s attempts to broker peace, including a trip to Moscow, in the run-up to Putin sending in the tanks may have failed, and Le Pen campaign leaflets may picture her meeting the Russian president, but neither has seen their standing damaged. Challenges to Le Pen from Zemmour and Valérie Pécresse, of the mainstream opposition right Les Républicains, and hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon are falling away.
A recent Elabe poll suggested that Macron’s popularity rose 8.5 points to 33.5% in a week. Latest polls have Macron at least 12 points ahead of Le Pen, with Mélenchon, Zemmour and Pécresse behind in that order. Ukraine is now the second-greatest concern for French people quizzed by pollster Ipsos; the first is their spending power, with the environment in third place.
“To be fair, the probability was that Emmanuel Macron would be re-elected even before the war in Ukraine … Now it’s going to be even easier because he is a wartime president,” Thomas Guénolé, a French political analyst, told the Observer.
“We can describe that as the Falklands syndrome, especially as there is no serious chance that France will be in direct confrontation with Russia, so there is no risk of France being humiliated or defeated.”
It is now 10 days since Macron announced his candidacy in a letter to the French people, and he has not even unveiled his election manifesto. So far, the only concrete proposal has been to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65.
Laurent Jacobelli, Le Pen’s campaign spokesperson, admitted the war in Ukraine had made campaigning a challenge. “Obviously, our role in an international crisis is not to undermine the role of the French president in negotiations and diplomacy,” he said. ‘But it’s not normal that the president is making this the only subject and overshadowing the rest.”
However, he added that the war had highlighted domestic issues on which Le Pen had long campaigned.
“Now it’s for us to show that the globalisation of everything – energy, business, food production – and the way conflicts damage French sovereignty with our dependence on Nato, are as important as ever. People’s spending power, for example, especially when they fill up their cars, is still at the heart of the campaign and at the heart of voter concerns.”
Jacobelli said the clocks will “go back to zero” once the initial boost caused by the conflict dies down. “As he did in 2017, Emmanuel Macron will try to sell this election on his personality, but after Covid, the gilets jaunes and his attempts to dissolve France within the European Union, maybe his personality will not be enough.”
Françoise Pams, a member of Socialist party candidate Anne Hidalgo’s campaign team, said the campaign had been “completely requisitioned” by the Ukraine situation. “It’s understandable that Emmanuel Macron is ‘benefiting’ from the war in the sense that it gives him, as the country’s military chief, a lot of weight,” she said. “But while he is not campaigning, the rest of his government are doing so on his behalf, which isn’t right.
“All we can do in terms of this election is to keep trying to pull the discussion back to the problems French people are facing and their main concern, which is their spending power. Fuel and energy costs are rising already, and this will only get worse.”
Last Thursday and Friday, Macron dominated the headlines again after he hosted an emergency summit on Ukraine at Versailles – where the treaty that ended the first world war and established the League of Nations was signed – attended by the heads of 27 EU member states.
Guénolé believes the most sensible approach now would be to postpone the election to avoid a “short-circuiting of democracy”, and says a victory in such circumstances will not do Macron any favours.
“We have seen this in previous elections when a candidate won almost by default. If Macron wins under these conditions, it will not be five years of democratic government, but five years of disastrous political tension,” Guénolé said.
Le Monde’s de Royer agreed, adding: “If this context serves the outgoing president, it further weakens an exhausted democracy.”
In the Rassemblement National camp, however, the mood remains optimistic. “Nothing is certain,” said Ludwig Knoepffler, a graduate of King’s College London who is Le Pen’s international media adviser. “Nothing is written in advance and we carry on.”