Macron’s political earthquake continues to rumble

Emmanuel Macron is one step away from a historic re-election as French president after securing a first-round lead against his far-right foe Marine Le Pen. Investors should be relieved, but not complacent. The second round, on April 24, will be a tight affair.

Early results show France’s establishment parties in tatters. An increasingly fragmented electorate is seeking new answers after Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine has extended the reach of the state’s protective umbrella without banishing fears of higher inflation.

Socialist Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo got a dismal 1.5% and centre-right Valérie Pecresse got 5% – the worst on record for either party. The Fifth Republic is in uncharted territory, with the respective white-collar and blue-collar voter bases of Macron and Le Pen displacing the left-right tribes of the 20th century.

The hollowing out of the center benefits radicals on all sides. Far-left instigator Jean-Luc Melenchon came third with an impressive 21.9%; Anti-immigration hardliner Eric Zemmour, meanwhile, won 7%. Even though Mélenchon has urged his supporters to keep Le Pen out of power, a good portion of them will think the opposite: a Le Pen vote, or no vote at all, to get Macron out.

Shifting allegiances and a growing share of candidates to punish the elites – Le Pen, Melenchon and Zemmour won more than 50% of the vote – have made French politics more unpredictable, even as the post-Covid state has become increasingly more generous. Macron will struggle to build a comfortable voting cushion from a frustrated electorate, with polls estimating his share in the polls on April 24 at 51%-54%.

Even if Macron remains the favorite, his lead is slim – and vulnerable – compared to his last presidential run-off against Le Pen in 2017, where he scored 66%.

After a lackluster campaign in which he refused to debate his rivals, Macron will have no choice but to fight his opponent head-on. It can claim an improved economy and revitalized European influence. But he will also be aware that his past reformist zeal will not seduce Le Pen voters eager for more protectionism, nor Mélenchon voters who want to give priority to the fight against inequality. Citizens want to be protected, believes Catherine Fieschi of the consultancy firm Counterpoint, making any second term of Macron different from the first – especially with the composition of parliament changing.

Le Pen, meanwhile, will be a serious contender against Macron. She deleted her most toxic policy proposals – like an explicit “Frexit” promise – in favor of budget handouts to under-30s and a flirtation with a Melenchon-style retirement age of 60. Beyond targeting volatile far-left votes, she also hopes to take advantage of the turmoil within Pecresse’s party, which is already divided over who to support.

Diplomats from other European capitals watch nervously: a victory for Le Pen would clearly be a thunderclap for the European Union. Beyond the immediate impact on the war effort in Ukraine of a candidate linked to Putin who has criticized the sanctions against Russia, there is a real risk of institutional stalemate and internal fights over budgets, terms of trade and the rule of law. Le Pen’s calls to favor French products and regain power in Brussels increase the risk of a de facto Frexit, according to Christine Verger, vice-president of the Jacques Delors Institute.

Macron will have to pit his own European project against that of Le Pen here too, while resisting the urge to focus solely on his extremism – his image as a candidate focused on consumer purchasing power has strengthened his position with voters , and it takes more than two weeks to unravel.

The stakes of this election for Europe and the world are high. France is the EU’s second-largest economy and the only nuclear power, at a time when the continent’s geopolitics and energy links are undergoing profound change. History is on the move again, to quote Arnold Toynbee: Macron should either be the first president of the Fifth Republic to be re-elected since 2002, or the first to lose to the far right. The incumbent proves his rise was no accident of history, but also points out that French democracy is mired in a “crisis”, as Saxo Bank’s Christopher Dembik puts it. It will take more than a 2017 rerun to fix that.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Macron’s “revolution” facing a judgment: Lionel Laurent

• Le Pen finally gets noticed by the markets: John Authers

• Ukraine reinforces Macron’s call for a European army: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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