Stuck in the Middle with You

It has been a pretty good couple of weeks for Emmanuel Macron. Benoît Hamon’s Socialist Party campaign continues to flounder, François Fillon is clipped by almost daily scandals and Macron has forced Marine Le Pen into second place in national polls tallying presidential voting preference for the first time in years. So far, Macron has escaped a major dent to his campaign’s momentum, however he must now navigate the tricky territory of endorsements from his highly unpopular former party-mates.

Macron is no stranger to substantial endorsements. In the infancy of his campaign Macron received the endorsement of Jean Pisani-Ferry, who left his position as Commissioner-General of the French Prime Minister’s Policy Planning Staff to take up a key policy and strategy position with En Marche[1]. Pisani-Ferry brought an academic heft to the campaign when many tried to write-off Macron as a lightweight, French Tony Blair, and helped craft the guiding principles that substantiate Macron’s platform.

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In late February François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist Democratic Movement and previous 2007 and 2012 candidate for the French presidency, endorsed Macron. The endorsement gave two clear boosts to Macron’s campaign. Firstly, it avoided a split in the self-described centrist vote and assured that Macron would not be competing against Bayrou for that section of the electorate.  This resulted in a flow of extra voters that Macron could build on. Bayrou had been expected to run again this time, after winning 18% of the vote in 2007 and roughly half the total in 2012. That he ceded his position as leader of the centrist vote in France gave Macron the second boost, increased credibility in the eyes of the electorate and political elite. Like Bayrou, Macron has railed against the failure of the two-party system to provide France with solutions to long-standing problems that have plagued the country since 2010 and earlier; long-term and youth unemployment, a lacklustre response to technological change and a civil service double the size of Germany’s.

Despite founding a new movement, Macron has an undeniable past in the old party politics of France. He was a member of the Socialist Party from 2006 to 2009 and served the Hollande government in two roles; as deputy secretary-general of the Elysee appointed in 2012, before becoming Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs in 2014. As Minister of the Economy Macron pushed business-friendly reforms that President Hollande eventually watered down and then largely abandoned. The failure to fulfil these reforms is at the heart of the split between Hollande and Macron, and is visible in Macron’s campaign pledge to ‘unblock France’.

In splitting with the Socialist Party and leading his own movement Macron gave himself ideological breathing space that allowed him to escape the politicking required to gain the nomination in an established party primary. He also ensured he could run as an ‘outsider’ candidate, free from the traditional restraints of a party’s legacy.

However, grasping and espousing a resolutely centrist position, rejecting both left and right in equal measure, has forced him to walk a tightrope throughout the campaign. This is partly the reason why Macron has produced a series of ‘guiding principles’ that would form the basis of his presidential agenda, rather than highly specific policy and legislative positions. He has to avoid appearing too on the left or too on the right. It is very difficult to balance the need to take clear positions, whilst maintaining equilibrium across the overriding ideological position of a campaign, especially if the candidate is campaigning against the left/right divide as ineffective for ordinary French voters.

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Members of the government recently passed the date to which they had to remain neutral in the presidential election. Current Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian became one of the most well-known cabinet members to publicly endorse Macron. On the one hand, Le Drian adds considerably to Macron’s campaign, as a defence and security heavyweight that can sure up Macron on these issues. Macron has praised Le Drian in campaign speeches giving rise to the theory that Le Drian would retain his position as Defence Minister in a Macron government.  However, if many others follow suit he will simply appear to be the heir of an unpopular government. Endorsement from too many left wing figures will also leave Macron’s campaign appearing to lean too heavily on the left-hand side of the political seesaw.

Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls has failed to endorse Emmanuel Macron, but this is likely due to personal political animosity from the man who must have believed only a few months ago that he would be in Macron’s position, rather than mercy.

Macron’s history in the Socialist Party forms the major attack line coming from his right-wing opponents. Both François Fillon and Marine Le Pen have employed the tactic of trying to depict Macron as a younger François Hollande, a now almost universally reviled figure. The closer Macron can be associated with Hollande’s administration the more damage is done to his popularity. This is why Macron is not welcoming of recent endorsements from high-profile figures in Hollande’s government. They give greater weight to the assertion that Macron is simply a younger and more charismatic Hollande who would continue poor performance of his government.

Macron has sought to mitigate this perception by repeatedly reminding interviewers and audiences of his independent credentials, highlighting his frustration over major reform with Hollande as the reason for their split. Macron has gone as far as to publicly address Socialists and warned them not to expect preferential treatment.

His top spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, was quoted earlier this week as saying ‘This is not a recycling machine for lost socialist careers’.

The strength with which Macron has to respond to campaign endorsements highlights the delicate balance of his position.

Macron has received the endorsement of members of Les Républicains, including Senator Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, but with candidate Fillon resolutely refusing to step aside, despite the deluge of scandals drowning his campaign, he is unlikely to pick up more significant endorsements from Les Républicains until Fillon drops out or is eliminated from the contest.

The attack lines against Macron have been balanced by left-wing candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, uniformly attacking Macron for his past as an investment banker. With only a month to run until the election, being squeezed on both sides may keep the public’s perception of Macron as a centrist.

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Macron has benefited from many fortuitous events in the campaign cycle. Fillon’s victory over Alain Juppé, who would have eaten into Macron’s central political ground, in the Les Républicains campaign, Fillon’s scandal hit campaign and the weakness of the Socialist party candidate. In fact, Hamon’s political platform of utopian socialism and his decision to dedicate vital campaigning time to negotiating an electoral alliance with the French Green’s – which provides neither of the parties a substantial advantage – look set to see him slip below Jean-Luc Mélenchon in upcoming polls. Many Socialist party insiders fear that the party is irrevocably broken and possibly finished. This fracture would, at least, say something about the political instincts of Macron, who has never been elected to office before.

His latest challenge was the television debate, which saw all five candidates[2] face off against one another. Macron, who hadn’t previously been through a rigorous political campaign or debates on television, outperformed his competitors according to three polls taken after the event. The Atlantico poll figures showed Macron as the most convincing performers with 20%, while he polled at 29% in the BFMTV poll and 24% in the Le Point poll. In each of these polls he was followed into second place by Marine Le Pen. As time goes on it is clearer that if the dynamics of the contest remain the same, it will be a pitched battle between Macron and Len Pen in the second round run-off vote.

In the coming weeks, Le Pen will continue to press ahead with the characterisation of Macron as the new Hollande, if his popularity among members of the Socialist government leads to more endorsements it could well paralyse his campaign’s momentum and lead to the low turnout that offers Le Pen the most viable route to the Elysee.

[1] En Marche ! (Forward! Or On the Move) is the French political party formed by Emmanuel Macron in April 2016. The party was formed as the institutional framework for Macron’s campaign for the presidency. Macron has called the party a progressive movement and En Marche intends to stand candidates in the legislative elections that follow the presidential vote.

[2] From left to right, the other major candidates in the French Presidential Election are Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise; ‘Unsubmissive France’), Benoît Hamon (Parti Socialist), François Fillon (Les Républicains) and Marine Le Pen (Front National).

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