Emmanuel Macron, not yet 40, seems to be on course to become the next French president. Many signs point to a comfortable victory in this Sunday’s run-off against the far-right Marine Le Pen. The polls give him a strong lead, although it has narrowed. Many mainstream politicians, left and right, have endorsed him, including former foes within the Socialist party and also the tiny Communist party. Much of France finds his opponent repugnant. He has strong support in almost all of its large urban centres. His score in the first round was encouraging. But he can take nothing for granted.
This isn’t a classic left-right competition of the sort that has long dominated politics, and Ms Le Pen is no ordinary political adversary. She is a threat to the fabric of democracy. She may have stepped aside from the presidency of the Front National party – attempting to create a Gaullist I’m-above-the-parties narrative – but that will have done little to erase where and what she comes from: a party that has consistently espoused racist views, and whose roots are found in Vichy and the Algerian war in France’s past. Her chosen stand-in leader, Jean-François Jalkh, resigned after allegations – which he denies – that he had questioned aspects of the Holocaust.
Yet Mr Macron, a former banker, can ill afford to be complacent. Ms Le Pen’s strategy of “dédiabolisation” has been to combine nationalism with rhetoric tailored for traditionally leftwing constituencies. She has wooed trade unionists, teachers and gay voters. Parts of the traditionalist, Catholic right help her to thrive on anti-Muslim sentiment. She says her party is now for the have-nots who live in “the forgotten France”. She claims to speak up for those who’ve felt let down by successive governments, and they are many. Ms Le Pen wants to cast this election as nationalists against globalists. She was quick to exploit film of Mr Macron sipping champagne in a Paris restaurant with VIP supporters after his first-round victory. It’s easy to see why, as the image reinforced the criticism that he’s an elitist, out-of-touch establishment figure. Then Ms Le Pen caught him off-guard while visiting a plant in the northern city of Amiens, where workers face job cuts. Mr Macron did do better – by talking to workers – than many reports suggest, but polls show he is struggling among working-class voters. Some trade unions are refusing to back Mr Macron, wary of his stint as an economy minister who shook up France’s labour market. He has responded with a nod to protectionism, offering a review of a recent Canada-EU trade pact, and insisting that he seeks no race to the bottom across Europe.
Riots on the streets of Paris may be nothing new in French politics, but they are not a good sign. There is a whiff of dégagisme in France – the feeling that a clear-out of the Fifth Republic’s Augean stables is needed. The slogan “Neither Macron nor Le Pen” swirls around on social media. Despite the high stakes, many voters will abstain. They are egged on by the leftwing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is wrong to say France does not face a choice. Ms Le Pen would benefit from a low turnout. Mr Macron is no doubt aware of these traps, and that he must do more to reach out far beyond the 24% who chose him on 23 April. In a smart move, he seems to be switching his campaigning into disenfranchised neighbourhoods, rather than the large cities he focused on earlier. He is, belatedly, trying to show that he understands their rage, and that he has something to offer ordinary voters, not just the more affluent and the well-educated.
Yet Mr Macron’s social-liberal message is more nuanced and less instantly appealing than Ms Le Pen’s. Creating new jobs by offering a little less job security will not appeal to those in work, and may not convince those who are jobless. Promising public investment and reducing social inequality are abstract ambitions. He must make a more concrete pitch. Above all, being the anti-Le Pen candidate is not enough. Mr Macron must not just win, but win well to govern his fractured and polarised country. Parliamentary elections are due in June. Many voters think Ms Le Pen’s Front National has moved on from its racist past, and believe her when she says she will defend those who feel abandoned by the elites. The “Republican front” that united to trounce her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential run-off is no longer solid. Mr Macron is our choice. He must find the language and the pledges that will show he’s not just a bulwark against neo-fascism, but also a voice for the whole of France. A Le Pen presidency would be a catastrophe.