Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Emmanuel Macron may well become the next president of France, but he’s not making it any easier for the French to vote for him.
At the same time his arch foe, Marine Le Pen, is pulling every trick from Donald Trump’s playbook.
Halfway through France’s bizarre two-week election campaign before the final vote May 7, here are just some of Macron’s faux pas:
The victory bash
Last week, when the ballots giving him a first-round win over 10 other candidates were barely counted, Macron staged a victory bash at the same restaurant where the Socialist incumbent, Francois Hollande, had celebrated five years ago.
All this only reminded voters of his close ties to the now thoroughly repudiated Socialists. Le Pen continued to use this all week, tying Macron directly with the equally repudiated Hollande.
The TV interview
The next night, Macron gave an arrogant television interview saying he won’t compromise at all to win over voters who backed either the third-place finisher, center-right former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, or far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon – for millions of young French voters, the Bernie Sanders of the race.
Macron simply sniffed that these voters will just have to embrace him because of his “overwhelming” victory in the first round. In fact, he only managed to eke out a win by just 2.7% over Le Pen. Sound familiar?
Perhaps Macron has woken up to this. In the last few days, he appears to have bent toward France’s many Euroskeptics. He has indicated that if elected president he would seek to achieve some kind of European reform, telling the BBC that if the European Union doesn’t listen to European citizens who feel left behind it could soon face a much-feared Frexit.
The Whirlpool factory
The next day, Macron scheduled a visit to a factory 95 miles north of Paris in his hometown of Amiens, where Whirlpool dryers were manufactured and that will be shuttered, moving 280 jobs to Poland.
There, still within the EU, the machines can be built with cheap Polish labor and shipped in, duty-free, to France. Macron is a firm supporter of the EU and its open borders. After spending 90 tense minutes with union leaders – no cameras or reporters – he emerged, only to be mobbed by hundreds of hissing and booing workers, many shouting “Marine for president.”
Le Pen had shrewdly showed up unannounced at the factory two hours earlier, but had pledged – vintage Trump – that under her, the factory won’t close.
All this took place to the backdrop of the cheers of the workers – and the delight of television reporters, who then broadcast the contrasting images across the country.
Macron had to be rescued by his security. Le Pen, as savvy a politico as they come, clearly recognized that it’s not whether a candidate can win a debate in front of a few dozen incensed workers, but the atmospherics of how it plays to the vastly larger audience hours later on the evening news.
The next morning, as if to reinforce her message, March unemployment figures were released – up by 43,700. And Macron continues to trumpet the virtues of globalism. Moreover, as Minister of Economy and Finance in the Hollande government, he is clearly being held to account by Le Pen for the economy’s many failings.
Macron has agreed to debate Le Pen, herself a master debater, five days before the second-round voting Sunday. He’s apparently ignored the mistake that Chirac avoided in 2002 by refusing to debate her father, the last time a National Front candidate made it to the finals. Chirac won by 82% to 18%.
This will be the only time most voters will see the two head-to-head. Nine years her junior, in his first campaign for elected office and with a tendency to come across as arrogant and at times even dismissive, this may not play well with his audience.
The French expect a certain assuredness from their leaders, but not dismissiveness. Many have had their fill of that with their last two presidents, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and the incumbent Francois Hollande, who both left office with record-low popularity.
The French political establishment has rushed to endorse Macron, which could prove to be a double-edged sword. Even before first-round voting, Barack Obama called Macron to wish him luck. Macron promptly uploaded the call to his Twitter account. Not an endorsement, though, Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis quickly pointed out. An amateurish move, particularly since the French have long been suspicious of Obama’s feelings toward their country.
Then came a televised endorsement from Hollande. Eight minutes in length, the president detailed the drawbacks of Le Pen, rather than the strengths of Macron who, only at the end of this oration, Holland said he’d vote for. Tossed out as an aside, he promptly turned and exited stage left while the camera was still live.
A full-throated and vital endorsement by leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon hasn’t materialized. Melenchon, who finished fourth in the first round with 7 million votes, believes he can still steal a plurality in France’s parliamentary elections in June, leaving him with controlling power in the curious French political system.
This has left many of his huge block of youthful supporters torn between abstention and Le Pen. Other big time candidates like Sarkozy who’ve endorsed Macron only highlight his ties to the ruling class that so many voters here hate.
In fact, we may be witnessing a historic realignment of French, even European, politics. Old-line Gaullists, farmers and factory workers are forming up a whole new set of alliances in two fraught weeks.
These new battle lines have only been hardened by Macron’s political gaffes. While most are talking about the 20-plus percent threshold of total voters that Le Pen can’t get past, perhaps Macron is the one with a worrying ceiling.
Le Pen has done nearly everything right: distancing herself from her National Front party, recognizing that French voters have had it with traditional parties and that many still see the far-right organization as a tool of her nasty, anti-Semitic father. She has made sure that her every move is carefully choreographed, not for the immediate spectators in front of her, but for the TV cameras and national audience who will vote for her. “Macron is the candidate of morbid continuity,” she told a screaming Labor Day rally on Monday, bringing everyone to their feet as she continued, “Macron and Hollande, we are going to throw them both out.”
Finally, on Saturday, she named her prime minister – Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – the neo-Gaullist who finished sixth in the first round, but who could bring along the 2 million votes he racked up.
Another plus for Le Pen: some forecasters are predicting a huge jump in abstentions for the second round – the hashtag #SansMoiLe7Mai (Without Me May 7) trending massively on Twitter – a trend less likely to mark the committed Le Pen faithful.
Le Pen has been a master politician since her father first introduced me to her when she was 12 years old. At his suburban Paris home, I’d just finished the first American television interview Jean-Marie Le Pen had granted, when a young girl with blond pigtails bounced into the room and Le Pen beamed: “I want you to meet the first female president of France.” This was in 1981.
It could be that what keeps Le Pen from winning the presidency is that same fear for the future that kept her father in the shadows. But for the moment, her slogan is a powerful one. “Chosir la France” – Choose France. And with Le Pen the tough law-and-order candidate, she might be one terror attack away from the Elysees Palace.