Need to Knows:
Macron is weakened by years of violent protests over reforms and pandemic management.
Marine Le Pen is better prepared than in 2017 and benefits from debates about border closures and Islam.
Republican party more likely to gain former Macron voters than Le Pen. A surprise candidate can be a game changer.
Despite mediocre pandemic management and controversial reforms, current polls view Macron as a winner of a tight race with Le Pen. A potent republican candidate could be a game changer.
With the presidential election less than fourteen months out and the regional elections occurring in June, the attention turns to France's political prospects. After years of violent protests over economic reform, such as the gilets jaunes and weak management of the COVID-19 crisis, Emmanuel Macron's approval ratings are down to 38%. Next year's election will scrutinize the government's crisis management and the state and prospects of economic recovery.
The latest Ipsos poll sees the president winning the second round with 56% over Marine Le Pen, a much smaller margin than in 2017. However, this situation favors high abstention during the second round of the election, benefitting Le Pen. The president's low approval rate (38%) is likely to drop further if his decision not to impose a third lockdown in February has to be reversed in the coming weeks. If the French are confined during spring while the rest of Europe starts to open up, Macron will have to admit another failure in managing the pandemic. A high abstention rate during the second round of the election could be the result, benefiting Le Pen if she will be his second round contender. Furthermore, the EU Commission pressures France to implement reforms to gain access to the Recovery Fund. Whether the measures taken in line with its recovery plan will materialize until the election remains to be seen. Several aspects target the medium- to long- term, rather than the short-term. Currently, the president's greatest asset is the lack of a credible candidate for the republican party.
Today, Marine Le Pen is most likely to face Macron in the second round. The decision by the minister of the interior Gérald Darmanin to confront her in a TV debate in early February was a tactical mistake. It provided her with a platform to show that she has learned from her mistakes in the 2017 debate with Macron: she appeared less angry, better prepared and less radical than her party. Besides, events in the last months supported several of her propositions. The pandemic challenges open borders and global supply chains. The fight against radical Islamism has become a priority for the government and parliament, which has just passed a controversial law seeking to fight "Islamist separatism".
With the election more than a year away, the republican party can become a game changer if it succeeds to present a strong candidate. Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region, is currently being positioned as the most likely one. Even though a victory at the regional elections might strengthen his prospects as a candidate, the polls should encourage the party to search for a more promising nominee. They place him at only 14%, far behind Macron (24%) and Le Pen (25%). Other possible candidates such as Bruno Retailleau, Valérie Pécresse or even Michel Barnier are further behind. Therefore, the republicans might be well-advised to come up with a surprise candidate: Someone who is well-known among voters and able to draw support from both the Macron and the Le Pen camps. Such a candidate could be Édouard Philippe, former Prime Minister under Macron and very popular among the broader public.
What is clear is that this election will be decided on the right side of the political spectrum. Macron is considerably weak and might lose the election. However, a strong republican candidate, if he/she is found, will be more likely to take over the Elysée than Le Pen. The president's management of the pandemic in the next months, most notably the speed of vaccine rollout and the regional elections' outcome in June, will be critical factors.
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