Keen to be ‘close to the people’, Macron ventures into hostile territory

Keen to be ‘close to the people’, Macron ventures into hostile territory


Emmanuel Macron’s second-round campaign strategy is markedly different from the approach he took ahead of his first presidential election duel against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017, as he criss-crosses the country – often visiting hostile terrain – as he tries to banish a perception of haughtiness among parts of the electorate.

French presidential election
French presidential election © France 24

Macron went straight to northern France the day after the April 10 first round, which catapulted him into another rematch against National Rally (Rassemblement National or RN) leader Marine Le Pen. The trip saw the incumbent president meeting voters in Le Pen’s heartland, the economically depressed ex-mining towns of the Hauts-de-France region stretching from the Paris outskirts to the English Channel.

The following day Macron visited similarly difficult territory – talking to angry voters in Strasbourg and Mulhouse, cities near the German border where hard-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon carried the first-round vote. On Saturday, he hosts a rally in Marseille, France’s troubled second city, where Mélenchon enjoyed a big lead.

Macron is expected to hold two more rallies before the campaign is over, while Le Pen will speak in Arras in her northern fiefdom on April 21, exactly a week after she spoke to a crowd of 4,000 in the historic southeastern city Avignon.

The president has learned his lesson from last time. Although most observers accurately foresaw  a Macron landslide against Le Pen, the far-right candidate narrowed his polling lead in the early stages by shaking as many hands as possible on the ground – while Macron celebrated topping the first-round polls with a dinner at La Rotonde, one of Paris’s most renowned upscale restaurants.

‘Close to the people’

After staying aloof for months while his rivals were campaigning for the first round, Macron is now keen to be palpably “close to the people”, noted Pierre-Emmanuel Guigo, a historian and expert in political communication at Paris-Est Créteil University.

This is all the more important because Macron is no longer the fresh-faced upstart, but an incumbent whom part of the electorate perceives as arrogant and disdainful, Guigo added.

>> Will older voters be enough to carry Macron to victory over Le Pen?

The front républicain – the call to rally behind second-round opponents of the far-right – looks like a diminished force in 2022. Meanwhile Le Pen has an extra reserve of votes expected to switch in her favour that she lacked before – thanks to her far-right rival Éric Zemmour winning more than 7 percent of the first-round vote.

Analysts also expect Le Pen to perform better than she did last time in the one-on-one televised debate against Macron – after flopping in 2017 as she had to take recourse to her notes mid-sentence, while Macron reeled off economic statistics with consummate ease.

“Travelling less so he could devote more time to preparing for the debate paid off for Macron in 2017,” Guigo said. “This time, Le Pen will have learned from her mistakes.”

Indeed, the RN leader is dialling down her travel schedule to give herself more debate prep time; in this sense the two rivals have reversed strategies since last time.

‘Anti-Macron territory’

As he takes a much more on-the-ground approach than his adversary, Macron benefits from a clear idea of where to go: Other than Le Pen, Mélenchon was the only candidate who got more than 10 percent of the vote in the first – so Macron can focus on the parts of France where the hard-left contender did well, as he has done with his trips to Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Marseille.

Macron’s trips to Mélenchon- and Le Pen-voting areas show how keen he is to reach out beyond his core base, Guigo pointed out: “He’s gone for places where he didn’t come out on top in the first round – indeed some of the most anti-Macron territory in the country.”

>> Why Macron will need to work his socks off to beat Le Pen this time

Going to Le Pen’s northern fiefdom before shuttling to Mélenchon was very much a calculated manoeuvre, Guigo said: Macron is eager to “show that he’s open to dialogue and ready to listen to people who have completely different opinions; he wants to get rid of his image as a president who doesn’t listen to people”.

The president’s approach provides a stark contrast with Le Pen’s tendency to go to places where she already has a lot of support, like Avignon – part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region; traditionally vote-rich territory for the far right, as the first part of France to give the then National Front a good electoral score in the late twentieth century.

What is more, Macron’s willingness to go out and engage with people who disagree with him – and indeed clearly dislike him – stands in contrast to the scene at a Le Pen press conference in Paris on Wednesday, when an environmental activist was removed from the room.

A risky venture?

But there are risks involved in going all-out to try and win support from Mélenchon voters, Le Pen voters, and indeed people who eschewed voting in the first round.

“Macron is generally quite good at speaking to people off the cuff, but every now and then he comes out with something that goes down badly,” Guigo said. The French media has made much, for example, of Macron’s response to a voter in Alsace who accused him of “killing” French hospitals: “Are you mental or something?”

That’s while the president risks alienating the voters who propelled him to first-round victory – many of whom are mainstream conservatives in places like western Paris and the Vendée on the Atlantic coast, areas that used to vote for the traditional right en masse. Spending too much time talking to Mélenchon and Le Pen voters could suggest to this electorate that Macron is “taking them for granted”, Guigo said.

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Hence Macron’s visit to Le Havre, trying to kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand, Mélenchon just about edged Macron there in the first round; on the other hand, the Norman city is strongly associated with Édouard Philippe, Macron’s conservative ex-PM, a popular figure who went back to running Le Havre in 2020.

The third risk from Macron’s focus on going out there and campaigning is that he loses out by ignoring social media. “He hasn’t done much on social networks, even though they’re the most popular form of media for young people,” Guigo pointed out. Indeed, Macron got just 20 percent of the vote among people aged 18-24 and 23 percent among those aged 25-34.

That said, if Macron feels he’s taken his eye off the social media ball, he could just repeat a trick from last year invite himself as a YouTube star’s guest – as he did with French youtubeurs McFly and Carlito in May 2021.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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