France is in a flap and Emmanuel Macron is to blame. On Sunday evening the En Marche! leader looked for all the world like a man who believed he'd already been crowned king. Bounding onto stage with a wink, a wave and a smile to his adoring supporters, after his first round victory, he then partied the night away at a Parisian bistro surrounded by the great and the good of France's liberal elite. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, after a brief speech to her supporters in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, left to start plotting her second round campaign.
On Monday evening she appeared on the main news programme to announce she was stepping down as National Front leader; on Tuesday she was back on primetime TV, subjecting herself to a two-hour interview on TF1, and on Wednesday she turned up unannounced in Amiens, Macron's home town, to address the workers of Whirlpool, an appliances plant threatened with closure with its business being outsourced to Poland. Macron was also in Amiens, but a few miles down the road from the plant, discussing the firm's future with union bosses in the chamber of commerce.
Le Pen, casually dressed, went on an impromptu walkabout, shaking hands, posing for selfies and conveying to the people that she was their saviour. 'Everyone knows what side Emmanuel Macron is on', she announced. 'He is on the side of the corporations. I am on the workers’ side, here in the car park, not in restaurants in Amiens. He’s showing disdain for workers, so I’ve come to see them'.
Caught off-guard by Le Pen's visit, Macron visited the plant in the afternoon where he was met by jeers and cries of 'Marine for president'. The En Marche! leader braved their wrath and tried to engage them in dialogue, but in doing so he revealed one of his major political weaknesses; Macron hasn't had much experience of dealing face to face with the working class, so he talks at them and not with them. On Wednesday, in his best suit, dabbing the perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief, he looked like a man who wished he was back in his Parisian bistro.
He looked more comfortable in the evening when he addressed 3,000 supporters in nearby Arras, warning France not to be fooled by his rival. 'Madame Le Pen is the heritor of the system', he said, always more at ease behind a podium with a well-rehearsed speech. 'She is born in a chateau and she gives lessons, she pretends to be of the people'.
For the moment Macron remains the firm favourite to beat Le Pen in the second round on May 7th, but a poll published by RMC radio on Thursday disclosed that 61 per cent of people interviewed believed Le Pen has 'achieved success' with her second-round campaign compared to his 48 per cent.
Consequently there is a growing concern among the country's political and media elite that Macron needs to start upping his game, and that the second round may not be quite the foregone conclusion they had all envisaged on Sunday evening. 'He was smug', said Socialist Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis of Macron: 'He wrongly thought that it was a done deal. It's not a done deal'.
In addition where are the mass protests that the political establishment were expecting? In 2002, tens of thousands of left-wing protestors marched through France to protest at Jean-Marie Le Pen's progression into the second round of the election; this time, hardly anything, a fact attributed to the 'banalisation' of the National Front under Marine Le Pen's leadership. There was the odd minor clash in Paris on Sunday evening but they were brief flashes of anger from a few hundred far-left supporters who hate Macron about as much as they do Le Pen.
And this is the problem for the far left, whose leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, continues to resist calls to publicly support Macron. If they protest against Le Pen doesn't that mean they are showing tacit support for Macron, a man whose economic vision is far more right wing than his rival's?
Mélenchon can take such a stance but others can't. On Wednesday a well-known French humourist, Pierre-Emmanuel Barré, resigned from the public radio station, France Inter, because of what he called their 'censorship'. His weekly sketch was pulled from the airwaves because in it the left-wing comedian had said he would rather abstain in the second round than vote for either Le Pen or Macron.
This was unacceptable to the station, explained the show's producer, who said 'encouraging abstention is to play the National Front's game'. The producer said it was his responsibility to pull the show and added:
'It's not censorship, especially not compared to the risk of real censorship should Le Pen win.'
Such a churlish and childish reaction shows how much Le Pen has the French elite in a whirl.