Mounting the vast white stage, thousands of light sticks glimmering from the blackness in the crowd, French President Emmanuel Macron was in his element. This was his moment. And for two hours on Saturday, he held his supporters spellbound with a recitation of his accomplishments of the last five years, his hopes and dreams for a second term.
For much of France’s four-month-long presidential race, Macron looked like a shoo-in to become the first French president in 20 years to win reelection. Now his lead is not quite so comfortable.
Only Le Pen has essentially been left standing. And she is the focus of media attention and the fears of Macron’s camp.
Macron had hoped to coast into a second term in that role, remaking Europe in the French image and himself as its powerful, focused leader in the wake of the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. None of this worked out quite as he’d hoped.
Instead, Europe has been plunged into the worst conflict on its continent since the Second World War. Macron, first in Herculean efforts to avert a Russian invasion, then equally energy-consuming attempts to unite Europe behind sanctions while seeking some route to a ceasefire, diverted his attention for crucial weeks as the presidential campaign built to a crescendo – all largely in his absence.
But also high on the list, is the President’s continued flirtation with the third rail of French politics – raising the retirement age to 65 years. When Macron first floated this nearly four years ago, the very idea sent hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into streets across France – the “yellow vest” movement that nearly destroyed Macron’s first term.
With the countdown on election day, Macron has refused to take part in any televised debate with the 11 other candidates standing against him in the first round on Sunday. Though he has agreed to debate one-on-one with whoever might be the other candidate in the second round two weeks later.
Still, if there is one very important constant in French politics, it’s voters’ deeply held views of history, especially their own. The Nazi occupation of France is still very much part of the nation’s DNA, even with few alive today who directly experienced these horrors. The thought of returning to a hard-right regime again is anathema to many.
In the end, Macron should be counting on one fundamental difference between French and American democracy. In France, the presidential candidate with the largest number of votes wins – there is no electoral college.
Macron understands this, which is why in his declarations at his rally last Saturday and various campaign appearances, he has been trying his best to scrape votes from the far-left and far-right, knowing only one of them will be in the final runoff . Effectively, he is running a second-round campaign before the first is even finished.
In the end, why should Americans or anyone outside of France care so deeply about this? Because if any of Macron’s most vigorous challengers from the left or right wins, the very foundations of western democracy risk being shaken to the core – as profoundly as Donald Trump ever did. Le Pen really does want Frexit (exit from the EU), and France out of NATO. The question is how many French will want to risk that, particularly with a war virtually on their doorstep.