Until even two weeks ago, most political analysts regarded France as the current leader of the European Union with President Emmanuel Macron the point-man in dealing with the crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Macron gave some credence to that analysis with almost daily calls to Vladimir Putin and trips to various European capitals, refusing to take the campaign trail in the presidential election.
Now, however, as the second round of the election on Sunday draws near, Macron is crisscrossing France to secure, as he says, “every vote”.
Having won the first round with only four percent of the votes ahead of his closest challenger, Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, Macron is no longer certain he would be able to sail to victory as he did five years ago against the same rival.
Today, even the most optimistic opinion polls show Macron winning with a small majority that, given last minute surprises, might not even materialize.
Several things have happened in the past five years.
To start with, having devoted much of his time to casting France as the leader of the European Union and a big player in the international arena, to many French people, Macron has appeared remote, if not struck by hubris-hence his undeserved sobriquet of “Jupiter”.
In a country where everyone thinks of himself as the best of all creation and of France as the greatest nation on earth, being cast as the Olympian Jupiter is a recipe for unpopularity.
In the same period, with the help of a Madison Avenue PR firm, Ms. Le Pen has reshaped herself from a Passionaria of racial hatred into a cuddly maternal figure capable of understanding all children of la patrie (fatherland).
To be sure, Le Pen still talks of shipping immigrants back to their original countries, preventing Muslims from replacing French civilization with their “barbarity”, and reserving certain social benefits to the “real French”.
However, she has centered her campaign on complaints about the cost of living and a promise to preserve retirement age at 62 years, the lowest in European Union.
Commentators say Le Pen has “softened” her image just as the Medicis sugar-coated their poison pills.
Even then, there is no doubt that Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the radical left represent a large segment of French electorate (together they collected more than 40 percent of the votes) that feels ignored if not humiliated by Parisian elites with Macron as their current champion.
As always this feeling of humiliation, which also contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in 2018 and later to Brexit, is partly subjective.
But a recent tour of some of Le Pen and Melenchon’s support bases, largely confined to the de-industrialized deserts of the northeast and southern France, revealed an appreciable gap between the prosperous France of most big cities and the just-about-managing life-style of many in medium and smaller towns.
It was no accident that Le Pen and Melenchon won a good number of their votes in constituencies that had supported the Socialist and Communist parties for decades.
Both also benefited from the melt down of classical centrist parties of left and right.
If one goes by numbers, in the first round of the election, 72 percent voted against Macron and 77 percent against Le Pen. The two finalists collected just over half of the votes cast. Taken together, the three pro-Putin candidates, Le Pen, Melenchon and Eric Zemmour, collected 53 percent of the votes.
This raises two important questions.
First, would a narrowly elected president have the political legitimacy to embark on a course of radical reforms that France needs and the stature to claim leadership in the European Union?
Secondly, would Le Pen, if elected, be able to form a credible government even if the Zemmour supporters join her camp?
Le Pen talks of forming a government of “national unity”. However, her ramshackle party, lacking structures in most parts of France, is unlikely to win a majority in parliamentary elections while no other party is prepared to serve in a government she might lead.
A Le Pen presidency could face other hurdles. She wants to take France out of NATO’s military joint-command, a move that would upset relations with the US and most other EU members. She no longer wants to quit the Euro but promises to reduce France’s contribution to EU projects.
In the current campaign, Le Pen has tried to explain away her long abiding admiration for Vladimir Putin as “the kind of strong leader that France needs”, and her endorsement of the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
More importantly in terms of here-and-now she says she well oppose European schemes to impose a total ban on gas imports from Russia, thus ensuring a regular source of income for Putin.
There are other signs that her heart still belongs to Putin if not as daddy at least as sugar daddy who financed the National Front and its new epiphany National Assembling through low interest loans from Russian banks.
Le Pen has also tried to camouflage her party’s visceral anti-Americanism, partly highlighted by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s admiration for the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. (Jean-Marie, now in his 90s, attended Islamic Revolution Day parties at the Iranian Embassy in Paris for over a quarter of a century.)
In the current campaign Marine’s anti-Americanism has been present in filigree with slogans such as “Macron is we an errand boy for Joe Biden.”
Desperate to shift attention from domestic issues, Macron has tried to present the current election as a referendum on European Union.
But, although he is the most pro-EU French president since Valery Giscard d’Estaing, his song and dance about Europe sounds contrived. His attacks on Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban and his criticism of the Polish government’s emphasis on national sovereignty are also ill-advised at a time that the issue of national sovereignty moves center-stage throughout Europe.
Worse still, because the EU is no longer as popular in France as it was a decade ago, talking of a referendum on Frexit in all but name is highly risky.
Would a loss by Macron open the thorny issue of French membership of EU?
Would a wafer-thin win by Macron give Frexiters, still a minority, fresh incentive to push the issue top of the national agenda with the risk of heading the country towards the unknown?
This is the third time in a generation that French electors are given a choice between an incumbent they don’t specially like and a challenger that most find unlikeable.
Many voters have told us in recent weeks that they still dream of a “real election” in which one is able to choose with both head and heart. This time round, however, the heart is out of the equation, leaving only the head. And that may give Macron a second term - just.