Emmanuel Macron, France’s risk-taker-in-chief

Emmanuel Macron likes to take risks. Confronted with anti-vaccination protests during the Covid-19 pandemic, the French president could have backed down as he did in the face of the anti-government gilets jaunes demonstrations three years earlier. Instead he raised the stakes, declaring his wish to “piss off” the unvaccinated and insisting that only the inoculated be allowed to enter bars and restaurants.

Macron’s sometimes unpopular enforcement of digital “health passes” and later “vaccination passes” paid off and saved lives. At the start of the pandemic, few people were more sceptical of vaccines than the French. Today, 78 per cent are fully vaccinated, more than in Germany, the UK and the US.

He has taken another kind of risk with his re-election battle. Preoccupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his responsibility for European leadership during France’s tenure of the rotating EU presidency, Macron waited until the last moment before briefly declaring his intention to seek a second term as president.

At first his campaign team fretted that he might have left it too late. While Macron was in Brussels, Moscow and Kyiv, Marine Le Pen, the far-right nationalist leader who will face him in the second and final round of voting on Sunday, was criss-crossing France listening sympathetically to popular concerns about the cost of living and portraying Macron as an aloof “globalist” who cared more about foreigners than the French.

The latest opinion polls suggest Macron has again made the right political calculation in confining his campaigning to a frenzied few weeks before the first round of voting a fortnight ago. He comfortably led the field with 28 per cent of the votes, followed by Le Pen on 23 per cent.

Macron remains favourite to win the presidency on Sunday. His previously narrow poll lead has widened in recent days as voters assess Le Pen’s radically nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration agenda, although she still has an outside chance of achieving an upset akin to the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump in the US six years ago.

This is not the first time Macron has taken a political gamble. As an upstart 39-year-old who had never held elected office, he swept aside traditional French politicians with a cry of “neither right nor left” and won the Elysée in 2017.

Another win would mark the first time in 20 years that a French president has secured a second term, and the first in more than five decades for a president fully responsible for policy and not in “cohabitation” with a government and prime minister of another political complexion backed by the separately elected National Assembly.

The five-year term Macron is about to conclude, like his brief re-election campaign, has demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of this unusual French politician, who graduated from the elite Ecole nationale d’administration and worked as a Rothschild banker and economy minister in a Socialist government before reaching his goal at the Elysée Palace.

Macron, now 44, is still bursting with energy, ambition and ideas. He believes he has a mission to reconcile his country’s fractured society and continue reforming the economy, while restoring France and Europe to their rightful place of strategic, industrial and cultural prominence in the world.

“He thinks he is the Joan of Arc of the 21st century,” says one admiring government official, explaining with only a hint of irony that Macron has the ambition and sparkiness required of a successful presidential candidate. “He thinks he’s been touched by the hand of God.”

The downside is that Macron is regularly accused by voters of being an arrogant “president of the rich” and is loathed, particularly on the left, to a degree unusual even in a country known for its revolutionary urge to decapitate its leaders.

Helped by the structure of the Fifth Republic instituted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, Macron centralises power and decision-making in the Elysée and in himself, even on matters such as science and medicine, in which he has no prior expertise.

“He won’t just accept the ideas of his advisers,” says a business leader who has known him since he was a minister back in 2014 and hopes to see him re-elected. “He listens to everyone, and decides alone.” 

Macron’s decision to confront the anti-vaxxers, this person says, was typical of the blunt approach that has often offended the French. “His general philosophy is that if there’s a problem you should say clearly what it is, and if you have a policy you should spell it out. And it was better to take freedoms away from the unvaccinated than from the whole population.”

Even if he is re-elected on Sunday, Macron will need his supporters to win the National Assembly elections in June to be able to govern effectively, and will face a country where only a minority wholeheartedly support his liberal internationalist outlook. In the first round, nearly 60 per cent of voters supported candidates of the far right or far left.

This time, at least, he has experience and he shows no sign of backing off. “Every time I go out, I meet fellow citizens who don’t like what I’m doing or what I’m proposing,” a combative Macron said on a recent campaign trip to a small town in Brittany. “They buttonhole me and I answer them . . . I take risks all the time.”