Targeted by right and left, can Macron overcome what Clinton couldn't?
Date created : Latest update :
Now in the final stretch before a decisive May 7 presidential vote, France is seeing some parallels with the political mood in the United States just before the November upset that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.
From Russian hackers to trying to unite a divided left against a far-right resurgence, Emmanuel Macron is finding himself facing many of the same obstacles that converged to block Hillary Clinton's path to the White House last November.
The results of France’s April 23 first round closely reflected what the polls had predicted: Macron and Marine Le Pen both advanced to the final with 24 percent and 21.3 percent of the vote, respectively. Le Pen's National Front had never won more than 20 percent in a presidential vote and her strong showing indicates a revival of right-wing appeal. Slightly more than 22 percent of voters abstained in the first round, the highest abstention rate in France since 2002.
On both sides of the Atlantic, a newly galvanised far right is better poised than ever to see an anti-immigration candidate triumph due to the widespread abstention of many on the left, who were bitterly disappointed that their chosen candidate did not make it to the final contest.
A lukewarm left
Many Bernie Sanders supporters in the United States were angry that Hillary Clinton won the primary to become the Democratic candidate, accusing the party of favouritism and rejecting Clinton as part of the entrenched political establishment. A month before the November vote, a YouGov/Economist poll found that only 60 percent of Sanders supporters said they would back Clinton. Some later transferred their loyalties to long-shot Green Party candidate Jill Stein – others even voted for Trump.
Across France, supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon are still feeling the sting of defeat after their candidate was eliminated in the first round despite a last-minute surge that won him 19.6 percent of the vote, his strongest showing ever. Mélenchon’s populist, shake-things-up message had appealed to many young people, and his candidacy offered a refuge for those on the left who are fed up with the ruling Socialists – Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon won only slightly more than 6 percent of the vote, a resounding rejection of politics-as-usual.
As the country gears up for the final round of voting, a survey by Mélenchon's party found that two-thirds of his supporters plan either to abstain or to cast a “Vote Blanc”, which allows French voters to cast a blank ballot in protest against their electoral options. The hashtags #SansMoiLe7Mai (May7WithoutMe) and #VoteBlanc have appeared on Twitter to unite members of this "Ni ... ni" (Neither ... nor) constituency.
Mélenchon himself, meanwhile, has broken with longstanding leftist tradition in declining to endorse Macron, even to keep Le Pen from power.
Harris Interactive and Opinionway polls foresee an eventual win for Macron with around 60 percent of the vote, although his lead is slipping. But such decisive numbers might also lure many on the left into believing that they can afford to abstain or vote “blanc” to convey their general displeasure.
It was dividing and conquering the left, after all, that helped Trump pull off his own Election Day surprise. In the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump’s margin of victory was less than the number of votes that went to the Green Party’s Stein. If Clinton had carried those states, she would have won the presidency.
Like Trump, the National Front could find itself sailing to victory on a wave of leftist discontent.
A recent editorial in French daily Le Monde warned against complacency in assuming that Le Pen cannot win. “The very worst scenario – and the most dangerous and irresponsible one for the future of France – would be to assume that an eventual Macron victory was a certitude,” the paper said.
Much like Trump's support base, advocates of Le Pen are exhilarated that their once-fringe candidate has made it to the final round and are expected to vote en masse. Conversely, independent centrist Macron has not managed to fire up the public – leaving many of his potential backers feeling lukewarm about casting their votes.
Theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine, founder of the Théâtre du Soleil, expressed the view of many in comments to FRANCE 24 at a May Day rally on Monday.
“The situation is very, very serious, there is a real danger,” said Mnouchkine, 78. “We will vote for Macron, not because we like his programme [but] because he is much preferable to something that would be a shame and a catastrophe for France, for Europe and for the world.”
Dubbed "Macreux", or Mister Hollow, the En Marche! (Forward!) candidate has been criticised for not clearly communicating what he stands for – and being the "anti-Le Pen" candidate may not be enough to guarantee a victory.
Clinton faced similar criticism, with some saying that she struggled to find her voice early on and that her campaign did not succeed in outlining a clear vision that would have energised otherwise reluctant voters.
The Kremlin wild card
Macron also shares the dubious distinction with Clinton of having been targeted by the Russian hacking collective Pawn Storm (also known as Fancy Bear, Strontium or the Sofacy Group, among other names). In a report released in late April, Japanese cyber-security firm Trend Micro noted that the group's goal appeared to be to hack into the accounts of senior Macron campaign officials to access its email exchanges – something that was also done to the Clinton campaign, whose emails were subsequently released by Wikileaks.
"We are 99 percent sure that the attacks come from Russia," said Loïc Guézo, Trend Micro’s strategy director for southern Europe, in comments to FRANCE 24 tech editor Sébastien Seibt.
Responding to the Trend Micro report, Macron’s campaign confirmed that it had been the target of at least five advanced cyber-attack operations since January. The campaign maintained, however, that the attacks had failed to gain access to any sensitive data.
"Emmanuel Macron is the only candidate in the French presidential campaign to be targeted," said a statement from En Marche!, adding: "It's no coincidence that Emmanuel Macron, the only remaining progressive candidate in this election, is the priority target."
Macron's campaign took retaliatory measures against Russian agencies in the final week of the campaign, denying press access to two state media outlets, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, accusing them of disseminating “propaganda” and “misleading” information.
The Kremlin dismissed the report. Spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Monday that Russia “never interfered” in foreign elections.
Nevertheless, it has long been clear which candidates Russia is likely to favour: Both Trump and Le Pen have criticised the crippling Western sanctions levied against Moscow for its actions in Crimea and Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Le Pen to Moscow in March. "I have long called for Russia and France to restore their cultural, economic and strategic ties, especially now when we are facing a serious threat from terrorism," Le Pen said in talks with the Russian leader. Le Pen also criticised the EU sanctions against Russia on her Moscow trip, calling them “counter-productive”.
For his part, Putin said that Le Pen represents a "rapidly developing spectrum of new European political forces" – new "political forces" that would perhaps cater better to Russian interests than the old guard.
Both Le Pen and Trump have vowed to take a more nationalist approach to foreign policy that puts issues of sovereignty front and centre, with Le Pen even proposing a referendum on EU membership. Both have praised Putin and suggested that NATO is obsolete, no doubt pleasing those watching from the Kremlin.
In a November interview with the BBC, Le Pen said NATO had lost its raison d’être. “NATO continues to exist even though the danger for which it was created no longer exists,” said Le Pen, laughing off the idea that Moscow poses a threat to Europe. “What is NATO protecting us against, exactly? Against a military attack from Russia?” she asked incredulously.
Rebooting the message
Ahead of the decisive second round of voting, both Le Pen and Macron have revamped their campaigns with fresh imagery and new slogans in a bid to appeal to undecided voters. Their new messages closely resemble those chosen by their American counterparts, with the themes of nationalism versus unity dominating both sets of campaigns.
Le Pen revealed new National Front posters on Wednesday that exhort voters to “Choose France”, striking a tone similar to the “America First” rallying cry heard on the Trump campaign trail.
Macron’s riposte – also unveiled on Wednesday – was to implore, “[Come] Together, France!” He went with an inclusive message that rejected the xenophobic rhetoric of Le Pen, much as Clinton denounced Trump’s anti-immigrant bombast with a slogan underscoring that the United States would always be “Stronger Together”.
So far the polls still overwhelmingly favour Macron, who appears well positioned to take the presidency on May 7. But given the surprise outcomes of the Brexit vote and the US election, it is clear that nothing is certain – legions of voters who feel disenfranchised by the political system seem newly attracted to those that promise, above all, to upend the status quo.