Emmanuel Macron's odds of becoming French President have narrowed in the final sprint to Sunday's election, with four in every ten voters* set to back the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. A fierce opponent of immigrants, Muslims and the EU and an admirer of Vladimir Putin, the Front National leader has tried to remake herself as the populist 'protector' of the people and the nation against 'savage globalisation', the 'powers of finance' and 'Uberisation'.
The 39-year-old Macron has a vision that could hardly be more different. He is an independent centrist, and economic moderniser who wants more European and global integration; the France of 'light not obscurantism', as he said in the presidential debate earlier this week. Macron rejects the notion of a France that closes its borders while forging a new alliance with Moscow. Instead there should be a strengthened Franco-German 'couple', a priority given to defending human rights, and EU-wide cooperation on issues including fighting terrorism. If Macron becomes head of state, he plans to increase France's refugee intake, keep borders well-policed but open for movement of goods and people, reform the country's complex labour laws, encourage entrepreneurs, and shake up public spending without radically overhauling France’s generous system of public entitlements. The hybrid program, like the title of his book, is little short of a peaceful 'Revolution' a la francaise.
France has suffered since Francois Mitterrand came to power in 1981. A parade of presidents and governments from the Socialist left and the mainstream right has failed to make structural reforms similar to those that have transformed Germany from the position of the 'sick man of Europe' just over a decade ago to the low-unemployment, steady-growth economic powerhouse it is today.
Gripped by inertia and the prospect of mass street protests the moment any policy shift is proposed, the risk-averse leadership class in France has increasingly pandered to voters' fear of the 'other', incarnated by international finance, economic liberalisation, foreigners, and Islam. Macron had some good luck, including the financial scandals that beset the right's front runner Francois Fillon. Donald Trump's chaotic first months as US president and concerns about duplicating Brexit in France also helped. Macron saw an opening in a country fatigued by a succession of corruption scandals among the political class, persistently high joblessness, two years of brutal terrorist attacks, and broken promises by the major parties.
In the year since he formed the En Marche! (‘Forward’) movement and quit as Francois Hollande's economy minister, he has succeeded in rallying popular and elite support for his political project, and eliminating the centre-right Les Republicains and Socialists from the race for the Elysee. Now it is Macron and his young tech-savvy supporters, joined by prominent identities from across the political spectrum - the centrist Francois Bayrou, the former Chirac prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Socialists like former Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian - on the road to victory. Even left-wing icons like Dany 'the Red' Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 protests, and the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, are calling for a vote for Macron.
Amid a ferocious campaign of demonisation from Le Pen's camp that has labeled Macron, a former investment banker, the 'ultra-liberal' candidate of the banks, the En Marche candidate has slipped in some polls to below 60% of the vote.
Macron's principled campaign
Despite the challenges, Macron, a student of philosophy, is not resiling from his principles or policy platform. Nor is he campaigning on fear in an electorate that is scared of terrorism and economic disruption and angry at the establishment that Le Pen, the wealthy heiress to her father's political legacy, insists Macron represents. The first polls after the presidential debate suggested Macron had won. Some 63% of viewers judged him more convincing against Le Pen's unremitting personal attacks and wild claims that the Euro was 'the currency of the banks while the Franc is the money of the people'.
He has not joined the chorus of French on the extremes railing against globalisation, and the 'oligarchs' of the European Central Bank, Brussels and international finance. Macron produced one of the standout scenes of the campaign when after being booed and hissed, he debated for more than an hour with angry factory workers at the Whirlpool factory threatened with closure in his native Amiens. His main argument? That retreating from the world and Europe, by closing borders or nationalising their failing business as Madame Le Pen proposes, will not solve their problems. Despite the high emotions, and cameras filming the entire long exchange, Macron managed to engage the Whirlpool staff and calm tensions. It was hard to imagine an aspiring Western political leader exposing themselves to such a high-stakes, unscripted campaign moment at the grassroots that could have gone horribly wrong.
The front runner in the French presidential election can teach cautious Australian political leaders from the centre-left and centre-right a lot about party and policy renewal in an age of populist anxiety, fear of migrants and global trade. In terms of foreign policy, Macron most closely resembles Gough Whitlam, who was elected on a sweeping, idealistic platform that focused Australia outwards towards Asia, emphasised human rights, and left behind Labor's insular history of white Australia. On economic policy, he has airs of the persuasive young Paul Keating, although he could perhaps have done with some more of the colourful Keating invective when confronted by Le Pen’s insults in the long presidential debate.
Frequently compared to Tony Blair, Justin Trudeau, and sometimes Barack Obama, the bookish Macron resists such parallels, mainly because he is the only contemporary leader from the centre to transcend the established party system, even if he emerged from it during his few years working for Hollande.
His greatest lesson is that despite an international wave of nationalism, it is still possible to make a winning case for progressive politics while protecting the rights of ordinary workers, rather than ripping up the post-war liberal international order.
As recounted in the book Macron by Macron, a series of interviews compiled by Eric Fottorino, editor of Le 1, Macron says: 'I believe in the transformation of the country and in the ideas of progress. I believe in the capacity to convince in the debate based on explanation and pedagogy'. He represents an end to the corrosive 'declinisme' that has gripped France for decades. Macron's audacious approach should send a message to leaders like Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten or Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. They can take more risks and be more courageous in the face of rising nationalism and the trend towards isolationism.
The fact that Macron is still in a relatively safe position to win the French presidential race on Sunday, in a country that never accepted or experienced the economic reforms undertaken in Australia and the UK, Germany, or much of Europe post-2008, is a testament to his capacity to convince a part of the electorate. However, his future will be determined not only by his win, but his margin of victory.
Le Monde has released an extensive Cevipof poll that went beyond straight voting intentions to ask 'why' as well as 'who'. Some 60% of those who intend to vote for Macron say they are only doing it by default. If, as expected, he wins the presidency, he could well be forced to govern with the right-wing Les Republicains and a reinforced far-left and extreme-right under Le Pen.
Marine Le Pen will outperform her father
For the majority of French who oppose her, it is shocking that Le Pen can attract so much support. She faces multiples probes into the alleged misuse of EU and French funds to fund party aides. Her party - really just a family vehicle to deliver political power - has roots stretching back to the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime. And yet the 48-year-old veteran of French and European politics appears set to get twice the votes she did in the first round of of voting last month. She is on track to win millions more votes than her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front National founder, did when he reached the deciding round of the race for the Elysee in 2002.
The FN represents a sharp break with French democratic traditions and the republic’s ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, because it wants to end on all immigration, legal and ‘illegal’, and expel foreigners or strip them of French nationality if they hold other passports and are on a radicalisation watch-list. Le Pen would abolish gay marriage and retreat from the EU and the common currency, notwithstanding her last-minute backtracking on ‘Frexit’. She vows to close French borders, abolish many checks and balances on executive power, crack down on press freedom, stop Muslims and Jews from wearing any head coverings in public, and forge new alliances outside NATO with authoritarian leaders like the Russian President.
Despite widespread dislike of Le Pen, not enough French are warming to Macron's unusual style and his unflagging optimism about a France that needs to reacquire a globalised 'spirit of conquest', as opposed to the 'spirit of defeat' he says Le Pen personifies, in a clear reference to France’s surrender and collaboration with the Nazis in 1940. Yet, if he wins and fulfills his promise of a government unifying disparate forces from the right, left and centre, and marginalising the extremes, Macron will have started the long road back to France reclaiming its position as a leading force of New Europe. It will no longer be synonymous with the decaying Old Europe mocked by Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq war.
*Since the time of writing, there has been a shift in the polls in Emmanuel Macron's favour, following Marine Le Pen's poor debate performance. Final surveys such as the IFOP published on Friday before the campaign entered official polling blackout mode, showed the En Marche candidate gaining several points to 63%. His opponent slipped to 37%, but is still on track in most polls to attract well over one third of the vote.