Emmanuel Macron, the once golden boy of European politics, could be about to suffer his first electoral humiliation. A black mood has settled over the president. Ministers have been ordered to campaign and tweet as if their jobs depend on it. Which they might. The president himself, dressed habitually like a funeral director, is on his normal hyper-manic schedule. But he fails to inspire and his electoral traction is barely visible.
The spectre haunting the Elysée is that in less than three weeks, Macron’s Napoleonic European project, the so-called EU Renaissance, intended to federalise diplomacy, fiscality and defence, will meet its Waterloo.
The president’s luck seems exhausted. Where once nothing could go wrong, now nothing goes right. He has no political instincts. His narcissism has become a gigantic turnoff. A majority of the French want nothing to do with his modernist ideas for rebuilding ravaged Notre-Dame (as a monument to himself?), but just want it restored. His Great Debate was a damp squib. And boring.
He was rebuked by Merkel over Brexit and then again over trade talks with the US. And now his EU list for the May 26 election is polling behind that of quintessential anti-European populist, Marine Le Pen. All the other parties are also rans. The Republicans (remnants of the mainstream French conservatives) are running third, at 13.5 per cent. The loony left, gilets jaunes micro-parties and traditional socialists all poll under ten per cent. After being written off following her defeat by Macron in the presidential election exactly two years ago, thanks to Macron, Le Pen looks to be on the verge of a storming comeback.
Macron became president under a two-tour voting system that could have been designed for him, pitting him directly against Le Pen in the decisive round. With plenty at stake, French voters turnout for Macron.
But this is no two-round election. It is a single vote, the seats are allocated proportionally and forecasting the result is made complicated by the presence of 33 different lists, each with 79 candidates (2,607 candidates altogether), representing the gamut from Frexit to Bolivarian communism. The vote against Macron will be diffused, but not enough to save him from the brutal arithmetic. His best result in recent polling was 26 per cent. His worst, in an Ipsos poll yesterday, was 21.5 per cent.
The electoral winds are chilly for Macron because he has a very small base of super-satisfied voters. Maybe five per cent. The rest of his support gets quickly squishy. Those who voted for him to keep Le Pen out of the Elysée are unlikely to feel so motivated by an election to the European Parliament. How many will turn out to vote? His list is headed by Nathalie Loiseau, a gaffe-prone former Europe minister and before that director of the École Nationale D’Administration, the finishing school for senior mandarins. She lacks any political sense or common touch.
With sharp spin doctoring, and the help of BFMTV, Macron has been hoping to present the Europe vote as a renewal of his mandate after six months of popular demonstrations. He is apparently in a foul mood as he contemplates results that will send a firm anti-presidential French delegation to the parliament.
Macron’s image as the saviour of Europe has diminished since the Economist put him on its cover, walking on water, less than two years ago. Macron was to have vanquished populism, and indeed Marine Le Pen shares the cover, although only her feet are visible, because she’s drowning.
But Macron has not conquered populism, he has stimulated it. On Saturday, the gilets jaunes will take to the streets for the 26th successive week.
Macron has made the election a symbol, a proxy to renew his mandate. This is further evidence of political ineptitude. It’s impossible for him to win. He can’t gain more than a feeble plurality and maybe not that. The French delegation to the European Parliament will be hostile to Macron, no matter if he finishes narrowly first or second. The parliament as a whole will be more eurosceptical than ever even without Nigel Farage. The gaseous parliament is hardly where Macron can fulfil his dreams. One German politician says of Macron: ‘If he’s having visions, he should see a doctor.’
Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron