For five years, Emmanuel Macron has been fending off challenges from the fringes of French politics. It began in the 2017 election runoff against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, continued through a showdown with the yellow vests protest movement, and is culminating in a culture-war clash with ultra-right-wing polemicist Eric Zemmour, who entered the race for the presidency in November. But as he seeks reelection in April, the president who was nurtured in the top echelons of the French technocracy has a potential knockout punch: the robust economy.
With polls showing that the French are veering right, Macron regularly gives nods to that part of the electorate. He has praised former President Nicolas Sarkozy for inciting a debate on “national identity,” hired a hard-line interior minister, and gave an interview to a far-right publication in which he spoke about immigration and Islam. In turn, his star has faded among left-wing voters.
But rather than becoming ensnared in confrontations about identity and immigration, Macron’s most senior supporters are urging him to lean on his economic record.
After a precipitous crash early in the Covid-19 pandemic, France has enjoyed a standout rebound, with output reaching pre-crisis levels in the fall—ahead of peers and sooner than even Macron’s team expected. Vast spending to support households and businesses during the lockdowns preserved the country’s economic foundations, and Macron has built on them with the high-speed deployment of a €100 billion ($113 billion) recovery plan.
“At a time when crowing about France’s decline seems to be in fashion, we have among the best economic growth figures in the euro-zone, and we got back to pre-crisis levels of activity three months sooner than expected,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Parliament at the start of December.
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