With the first-round of the French presidential elections just around the corner, the twelve candidates for the much desired position have recently intensified their campaigns for the much wanted position. Between meetings, debates and media appearances, the past two weeks have marked the final stretch before a first round of vote on April 10.
More importantly, this past week has seen the apparition of one candidate who had so far been absent from the presidential race. Emmanuel Macron, current president running for a second term, has indeed made his grand apparition after repeatedly avoiding to participate in public debates. Last weekend, the presidential candidate held a political rally gathering more than 30,000 people where he exposed his propositions for his upcoming mandate.
While this year’s presidential campaign was marked by the pandemic and the Ukrainian war, Macron has joined the race surprisingly late with no clear program nor prolonged campaign. He has rather bet on his status as president, leading figure in negotiations with Russia, and relative success in the management of the covid crisis. Across the political spectrum, many public figures have however denounced his indifference to the presidential race and ‘disregard for the democratic debate’.
An atypical campaign
With a campaign overshadowed by the pandemic, the eruption of an armed conflict and more recently, public unrest in Corsica, most candidates have struggled to find a platform for their ideas. On the right and left sides of the spectrum, the large number of candidates has also limited their capacity to propose a unique political agenda. Despite the occasional shocking statements by extreme-right candidates, this election has therefore been relatively overlooked by most of the French population, more preoccupied with rising prices.
On the contrary, Emmanuel Macron’s political platform has been strengthened by his strong response to the pandemic and recent ascent as the leading force of the European block against a threatening Russia. The presidential aura, galvanized by his substantial executive powers granted by the constitution, has allowed Macron to enter the race with a tremendous advantage over his opponents.
Still, the president’s refusal to publicly debate with other candidates or extensively outline his program in the media has created much outrage in political and media spheres. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an extreme-right candidate, did not hesitate to call out the president on his decision on national radio earlier this month : “We cannot continue like that in a democracy, three weeks before the election”.
With opinion polls giving him 27% of voting intentions in the first-round, ensuring him a place in the second-round, Macron has however brushed off these accusations. He has further defended himself by stressing that sitting presidents have traditionally refused to debate their opponents before the final round. Gabriel Attal, spokesperson for the government later commented that a debate with twelve candidates would “only be a show, create buzz and be a fighting ring” rather than being constructive.
A tacit communication strategy
In parallel with avoiding direct political confrontation, the president has deployed a carefully crafted communication strategy throughout his term and campaign. Such an approach has allowed Macron to avoid the potentially detrimental effects of a heated debate while preserving his presidential appearance. Valérie Pécresse, second runner up, first handedly experienced the destructive power of a failed communication operation after her disastrous performance last month.
Rather than taking such risk, Macron’s communication team has designed a tightly controlled ‘brand’ by relying on social media and unilateral press conferences. The recent images posted by his team of a barely shaved president in the midst of negotiations with Russia reinforced his image of a leader in ‘action’ without the risk of facing an uncontrolled political backlash. The creation of a ‘web-series’ following the backstage of his campaign has similarly promoted the image of an uncontested president in line with his constituents.
In parallel, Emmanuel Macron’s media presence has continued to be meticulously supervised with sporadic media appearances in front of selected media figures. In a recent article published by FranceTV, journalists explained their surprise when they were asked to provide their questions in advance of a press conference with the President. Although his team later specified this was for an organizational purpose, this has only worsened the previously tenuous relationship between Macron and the press.
At a time when his opponents are engaging in fierce political competition, the carefully crafted communication strategy developed by Macron combined with current diplomatic circumstances are greatly contributing to his popularity as a capable leader. By embodying the French presidential tradition of an all-powerful leader through a top-down approach to the media, public and opponents, Emmanuel Macron has managed to appear as the obvious choice for a population wary of politics and anxious about the state of the world.
A ‘smooth’ re-election ?
Although polls are predicting Macron’s re-election, the gap with Marine Le Pen, his main opponent, is shrinking dangerously. The revelations over the potential overuse of consulting firms during his mandate have recently sparked heated reactions in political and media circles. Macron’s decision to once again avoid a direct confrontation on this matter has been a golden opportunity for his opponents to attack the current president on his mandate.
While his re-election is still very likely, this minimal campaign could expose Macron to severe political backlash in the long-term. As rising inflation disproportionately impacts lower-income families, popular discontent is already mounting in many regions. Against this backdrop, Macron has announced his wish to increase the age of retirement and raise the requirements for obtaining minimum governmental aid. These liberal measures are likely to not do well among voters especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to see them publicly justified by the president.
Debating, a democratic process
While Emmanuel Macron has accumulated media interventions and political meetings in the past week, these interventions have come extremely late and remain highly restricted. Apart from an individual televised intervention earlier in March on the Ukrainian crisis, the president has categorically refused to directly debate his program with other candidates.
Although Macron should be blamed for not fully engaging in this campaign that will determine the direction of the country in the foreseeable future, the current French political landscape is not pushing the president to do so. Between a scattered left and an ever more extreme right, Macron appears as the most reasonable choice for many constituents. While the candidate could be threatened by his closest opponents such as Le Pen or Melenchon, they both remain at the extreme end of their respective political wings. Macron can therefore easily play the “liberal versus populist” card and reap the votes of the massive pool of constituents at the center of the political spectrum in the second-round. Combined with a massive disinterest in politics in favor of more short term concerns, the French population is likely to elect Macron as his stands as the “least worst choice” among the twelve candidates.
Still, in a system that gives significant powers to the president, it is crucial that every candidate should justify and be questioned on their political agenda. Defending one’s ideas in front of a diverse audience and impartial journalists constitutes a fundamental aspect of a well-functioning democracy. While raging televised debates could appear as detrimental to the political landscape, they also ensure accountability and the display of a plurality of opinions. With nearly ten million viewers for the first-round debate of the 2017 elections, these events are also opportunities for the population to first-handedly engage with their leaders. Given that 30% of the population is planning to abstain, finding ways to inspire voters seems key to renewing political interest in France.
Emmanual Macron is most likely set to spend a total of ten years in power. It is necessary to require transparency and accountability over his current and future political program. Not only is he running the risk of growing discontent among the population but the president could damage his influence in the short term. With legislative elections just around the corner, Macron’s strategy could prevent him from securing a crucial majority in the Assembly leaving him with less political power during his mandate. In the long-term, Macron’s campaign strategy could therefore risk harming his image, legitimacy and more importantly, the democratic process itself.