Centrist Macron eyes French presidency despite Le Pen lead

Sunday 26/02/2017
French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! Movement Emmanuel Macron gives a speech during a campaign meeting on February 18th in Toulon. (AFP)

London - Emmanuel Macron is the man who may become president of France. The 39-year-old centrist, an independent running an insurgent campaign, is also the man who may end up handing the keys to Paris’s Élysée Palace to the Na­tional Front’s Marine Le Pen. One thing is certain though, nobody ex­pected this.
Macron and Le Pen are the front runners ahead of the April 23rd French presidential election af­ter the Republican Party nominee François Fillon’s polling numbers collapsed amid a corruption scan­dal. Eight weeks before the elec­tion, and unless France’s embattled left and far-left can unite, Macron and Le Pen will likely face off in the presidential run-off May 7th.
What makes Macron different?
A former member of the French Socialist Party, Macron served as Economy minister from 2014-16 when Manuel Valls was prime min­ister. He resigned to launch his pres­idential bid and his En Marche! (For­ward!) Movement has been linked with “third way” politics similar to those promoted by former Brit­ish prime minister Tony Blair and former US president Bill Clinton. However, in 2017, a time when such “third way” options may seem out­dated, many fear that a surging far-right could take advantage.
Immigration and security are clearly the main issues of the elec­tion. It is on these issues that Ma­cron distinguishes himself from his rivals. Whereas Le Pen is calling for strict immigration controls and has promised an EU referendum, Ma­cron has defended open-door im­migration and called for closer ties with the European Union.
Speaking in Berlin in early Janu­ary, Macron said France’s security would “not be better served by clos­ing national borders” and called for an EU-wide solution to migration. Speaking in Algeria one month lat­er, and with his fortunes in the polls rising, Macron made a surprise ac­knowledgement of France’s contro­versial colonial history.
“Colonisation is part of French history. It’s a crime against human­ity. It is a real barbarism. It’s part of the past and now we have to look forward and present our apologies regarding those to whom we have committed these acts,” Macron said.
While his comments were wel­comed by liberal sectors of society, they were greeted with shock by others, including his presidential rivals.
“Is there anything more serious when you want to be president… than to go abroad to accuse the country you want to lead of a crime against humanity?” Le Pen re­sponded in a statement. “By using this argument probably for basely electoral reasons, the crime was committed by Mr Macron. He com­mitted it against his own country.”
Fillon also set his sights on Ma­cron. “This dislike of our history, this continual repentance, is un­worthy of a candidate for the presi­dency of the republic,” he said.
Macron was unrepentant, saying: “We must find the courage to call things by their name. Are we con­demned to forever live in the shad­ows of this traumatic experience?”
This is not the first time that Ma­cron has made comments that his presidential rivals, on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide, would balk at. Speaking at a rally last October in Montpellier, Macron acknowledged that the country had made mistakes in unfairly targeting Muslims.
“No religion is a problem in France today. If the state should be neutral, which is at the heart of sec­ularism, we have a duty to let eve­rybody practise their religion with dignity,” Macron said
Le Pen may be ahead in the polls, while Macron is second — either joint second with Fillon or just ahead of him — but all expectations are that Le Pen will falter in the second round as voters other than those on the far right, unite against her policies. For Macron, he only needs to hold steady to become France’s next president.