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PARIS — Spend some time in France these days and you could be forgiven for thinking President Emmanuel Macron doesn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell of being reelected next year.
The French are enraged at the glacial pace of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and the shortage of vaccines, adding to accumulated anger over lies and cover-ups about the lack of face masks when the pandemic first hit, and the shortage of tests as it spread. Many think the young centrist president arrogant, technocratic and disdainful toward the poor or less able.
Yet despite the sound and fury, street protests, acts of civil disobedience and endless grumbling, Macron has a good shot at winning a second five-year term in May 2022. Not because people love him or necessarily think he’s doing a good job — his core support base is barely one-quarter of voters — but because he is blessed with a hopelessly divided opposition.
Decimated by the implosion of the Socialist Party and the collapse of mainstream conservative Republicans in 2017, France’s political landscape remains a field of rubble.
Macron’s La Republique en Marche party — hastily assembled with second-string politicians and civil society activists after his meteoric ascent to the Elysée Palace — has failed to put down deep roots around the country. But nothing else has grown back either.
The left is a shambles of rival splinter groups and fiefdoms. The Republicans, riven by personal ambitions, have local and regional power bases, but they lack a unifying national leader and are squeezed by Macron’s occupation of the center-right economic and social terrain. His reforms of labor laws, the SNCF railways and the tax system sparked protests but — until the coronavirus struck — they had begun to spur growth and bring down unemployment.
Opinion polls show Macron’s most likely run-off opponent will once again be Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration populist whom he trounced in 2017. Although she has abandoned her opposition to the euro, she still scares the middle classes. Nothing suggests she can mutate from a megaphone for grassroots rage against the elite into a plausible alternative head of state.
In France’s hyper-presidential system, where all major decisions are taken at the Elysée, the buck stops at Macron’s desk. In the pandemic, that initially gave him the benefits of incumbency at a time of crisis, but it has also left him increasingly alone in the firing line.
Macron has been more exposed since he fired his popular Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who threatened to outshine his master, and replaced him in July with the little-known center-right Jean Castex — an uncharismatic technocrat.
As the pandemic drags on and economic damage piles up, news channels are seething with health professionals complaining they are overstretched and under-rewarded, blaming Macron for not imposing a stricter lockdown and lamenting inadequate spending on health and research.
Performing artists are on air day and night lambasting the president for sacrificing culture to mammon by keeping supermarkets open but museums, theaters and concert venues shut. Michelin-starred chefs and humble café-owners spew wrath at him for crippling the hospitality sector.
And yet, even amid this winter of discontent, there is little sign of any opposition hopeful gaining traction.
Le Pen has tried to channel everything from vaccination skepticism to anti-lockdown fury but has failed to widen her core support, polls suggest — despite an effort to soften her image by qualifying as a licensed cat-breeder during the lockdown. Though she rushed to distance herself from former U.S. President Donald Trump after his supporters rampaged through the Capitol, she remains a collateral loser from his defeat. Her National Rally party is broke and heavily in debt.
For what they are worth at this early stage, opinion polls taken in January gave Le Pen a slender lead over Macron in the first round of voting, with roughly 25 percent to his 24 percent. One survey found the president’s lead over her in a head-to-head run-off ballot had narrowed to 52-48, but none has so far has put her ahead.
No one else comes even close. The best-placed mainstream conservative is Xavier Bertrand, a former health, labor and social affairs minister who is president of the northern Hauts-de-France region. He trails a distant third, with about 16 percent support. Other center-right politicians such as Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, and Laurent Wauquiez, a more hardline former leader of the Republicans, score less well.
On the left, veteran anti-capitalist Euroskeptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won a whopping 19.6 percent in 2017, has declared his determination to run again. Polls suggest support for the fiery orator has dwindled to about 10 percent. His divisive presence would dash any chance of the left uniting behind a single candidate in the first round, and hence of reaching the run-off. But barring ill health, it’s hard to see him dropping out, least of all in favor of a center-left Socialist.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, a Socialist who governs the capital in alliance with the Greens, is polling under 10 percent, barely more than the best-placed Green standard bearer, Yannick Jadot, who led the party’s successful European Parliament campaign but has bitter rivals among less pragmatic members.
Other possible Socialist contenders include former Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a left-wing icon and poet from French Guyana, and Arnaud Montebourg, a protectionist former industry minister who swapped politics for a bee-keeping start-up after being fired for serial dissent by former Socialist President François Hollande. Hollande too seems to hanker after an utterly improbable comeback.
A week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson famously said, and 15 months is an eternity.
France may have caught up with vaccinations and vanquished COVID-19 by spring 2022 — or it may still be struggling with the pandemic. Tourists may have returned and bars and restaurants may be full — or the economy may still be laid low by restrictions. Voters may be traumatized by more terrorist attacks at home or by casualties in military operations in the Sahel. Arguments about the place of Islam in France, as well as law and order, are sure to figure in the campaign.
Given the fickle national mood, a populist outside the political spectrum could suddenly federate a movement of malcontents. One such figure is Didier Raoult, an infectious diseases specialist and local hero in Marseille who championed hydroxychloroquine — since discredited — as a treatment for COVID-19. He embodies provincial revolt against “experts” and the establishment.
If the situation were truly disastrous, another remote possibility would be a call from the right to draft former President Nicolas Sarkozy, a backroom power broker who is still just 66. His last attempt at a comeback in 2017 ended in humiliation.
For now, the election is still Macron’s to lose.