When Emmanuel Macron resigned from the French government almost six months ago, and subsequently launched his independent candidacy for the presidency, it looked like a long shot. Yes, he was smart and charismatic. But he lacked an established base of party support, he was closely associated with the unpopular policies of an unpopular government, and he was competing in a field crowded with more well-known and experienced figures.
Since then, Macron has performed well, to the point where he is now favorite to win the top job. But he has also benefited from a truly extraordinary run of good luck.
First, last year’s Republican primary was won by former prime minister François Fillon. From Macron’s point of view, Fillon was clearly best of the three serious candidates: Alain Juppé, being more of a centrist, would have taken votes from Macron, while Nicolas Sarkozy, on the authoritarian wing, might have lured votes away from the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Fillon’s first-round vote, however, would be pretty much limited to his own centre-right base.
Then the Socialist primary also went Marcon’s way: left-winger Benoît Hamon beat the more centrist Manuel Valls. While he has strong support from the party’s rank and file, Hamon is unlikely to win over many mainstream voters; he has also failed so far to head off the separate candidacy of the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is persevering with his own campaign.
Then, as a bonus, Fillon’s campaign ran into deep trouble, with the scandal over payments to his wife and children – possibly more than a million euros – for what appears to be non-existent work. As my colleague Alan Austin explained this week, the French have a remarkable tolerance for financial (and sometimes other) misdemeanors among the political class, but the pursuit of personal advantage on this scale is still quite out of the ordinary.
It’s possible that Fillon will produce a more or less convincing defence and the scandal will blow over. But with the first round of voting on 23 April fast approaching, that seems unlikely. It looks as if Macron will again get the best possible outcome – either a mortally wounded Fillon as a candidate, or a lacklustre last-minute replacement such as veteran Senate president Gerard Larcher. The chance of the Republicans recalling either Juppé or Sarkozy (who both have their own scandals to contend with) is remote.
The dynamic of the first round is clear. No-one much doubts that Le Pen will be one of the top two (she currently leads in the polls with around 25%), and unless that changes, none of the others has any interest in depressing her first-round vote. Firstly because they are competing against one another, and votes taken from her might go to one of their rivals (this is particularly the case for Macron, who is the least likely to appeal to former far-right voters); secondly because each of them wants to be sure of facing her in the runoff, rather than one of the others.
As I keep saying, voting systems matter. Of course it’s right to be concerned about the strength of Le Pen’s vote. But it’s important to realise that there is no material difference between first and second place in the first round, and that Le Pen’s standing is being inflated by the fact that no-one else is directing much of their fire at her. For Macron, Fillon and Hamon, their own rivalry is what matters.
Each of them knows that if he can beat the other two, Le Pen should be a pushover in the second round – and Macron most of all, since he is the one with the broadest appeal.
But to get there, he has to keep his campaign rolling for another two and a half months, and hope that his amazing run of luck continues. If it does, he will be the next French president.