So the polls were right. Former economy minister and centrist Emmanuel Macron will go head-to-head with Eurosceptic far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in round two of the French presidential elections on 7 May. One of them will become President of France and by now we know what the candidates stand for.
I have interviewed Macron a couple of times in the past two years. He’s focused and has a good sense of humour. At 39, he’s my age (well I’m a year younger, but who’s counting?).
Exactly 16 months ago I interviewed him on the mountain-tops of Davos and at the time he was the most popular politician in France (his boss Francois Hollande wasn’t doing so well in the popularity stakes). As he sat down, I gave him a heads up that I would ask whether he wanted to run for President. He looked at me, his assistant, shrugged his shoulders and said, “I won’t say anything but you ask me what you want. Let’s have fun.”
His playfulness and the fact that he didn’t deny it at the time inclined me to think that he would run, but it was not until a couple of months later that I realised how badly he wanted to be President and how focused he was. He started a “movement”, he said, not a party.
The last time I interviewed Macron was in December, at a tech conference in London. He was part of a panel discussion on leadership and innovation. We were on stage for an hour, and then, separately, he gave me an interview on his vision for Europe (he actually uses the video on his website under “European priorities”, which is flattering but a little unorthodox). As far as I know he’s also the only French Presidential candidate who is capable of giving interviews in fluent English.
He’s young, charismatic, and approachable. In every way he is perhaps an odd candidate for a French President.
Of course he has his critics. Analysts and academics I spoke to while broadcasting live from Paris on Sunday said he lacked gravitas in his speech and that he acted like a child-king by going to celebrate the first round result with celebrities at popular brasserie La Rotonde. A little premature, perhaps?
And yet professors told me there is no chance his opponent would ever become President. “She would lose against a goat” is how Thomas Guenole of Sciences Po put it. “People in France aren’t racists, she won’t be anybody’s second choice, so she won’t expand her base.”
Polls suggest Macron should win the runoff by at least 20 percentage points.
But after years of economic under-performance and multiple terrorist attacks, French citizens now have to choose between two candidates with two opposite visions of what France should become. Le Pen wants the protection of workers through barriers, and wants to shield her country from international competition. Macron wants a market friendly, competitive and globalised France.
Macron continues to rack up endorsements from mainstream politicians, from left and right. But the French are stubborn, and they won’t vote for a candidate because rejected leaders told them they should vote for him. Macron’s best strategy may be to lie low, as the Presidency is for him to lose. He should limit his appearances so as to limit the chance of screw-ups, and work really hard to nail the face-off TV debate with Le Pen next week.
If he stays the course and there are no big scandals and terrorist attacks, he’ll be President. The only thing that could really derail him would be voter turnout: the lower the turnout, the higher the chances for Le Pen, given her supporters are said to be more committed.
But as the French proved once again on Sunday, they usually turn up and vote.
This article has been corrected to change the name of the restaurant Macron attended on Sunday night.