Five years ago, Emmanuel Macron contested the presidential election with Marine Le Pen, but he now faces a much stronger challenge from the renewed leader of the far right. The second round of the French presidential elections will be held on April 24, and opinion polls indicate a closeness in the chances of the two parties in the race.
When Macron became France's youngest president in 2017, he crowned a rapid rise that came less than a year after launching a centrist political movement called the Party of the Republic on the Move to counter traditional parties.
He easily defeated Marine Le Pen in the run-off of the 2017 elections, receiving 66 percent of the vote. Five years later, at the age of 44, Macron continues to dominate the French political scene, but this time polls indicate that his far-right opponent has a real chance of ousting him from the Élysée Palace.
Macron came to power as a little-known figure, a charismatic former economy minister who had never run for elected office before, and offered a more centrist view of France.
As a disciple of Socialist President François Hollande with an investment banking background, Macron has put aside old political loyalties. This, for many, is what distinguished him from the ruling class, although he shares with it the background of France's political elite. The socialists and republicans who ruled France for a very long time are in dire straits now
Macron began his public service career in 2004 as a finance inspector for the French Ministry of Economy and Finance. Four years later, he bought out his government contract for €50,000 (approximately $70,000) to enter the private sector, a move that friends warned would jeopardize any future political ambitions.
After Hollande won the presidency, Macron joined his administration as a deputy chief of staff and economic advisor. Macron became the face of France at international summits, and in 2014 he was elevated to finance minister. He promoted a package of reforms known as the Loi Macron (“Macron law”) in an effort to spark the moribund French economy, but the legislation triggered a revolt from the left wing of the Socialist Party.
In February 2015 Prime Minister Manuel Valls was forced to invoke Article 49 of the French constitution, a rarely used measure that allows a bill to pass without the consent of parliament on the condition that the government is then subjected to a vote of confidence.
Valls easily survived that vote, and Loi Macron (“Macron law”) was enacted. As a result, restrictions on conducting business on Sundays were loosened and some professions were deregulated, but the labor market was largely untouched, and France’s 35-hour workweek remained intact.
The Loi Macron (“Macron law”) amounted to a relatively modest reform package for a country grappling with persistently high unemployment and slow growth, but it nevertheless sparked a fierce backlash from both the left and the right.
On the other hand, this is Marine Le Pen's third attempt to seize power, but it represents her biggest chance so far. She made these elections a choice about the future of society and civilization in her country and promised to "restore French sovereignty".
Her family name has been synonymous with the far right in France for decades, but when in 2011 she took over as far-right leader from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, she set out to reform his old National Front party and made it her party.
Marine Le Pen, a political player in France for years, became a member of the European Parliament before moving to fulfill her presidential ambitions. After being defeated by Emmanuel Macron in the run-off of the 2017 elections, she renamed her party “The National Rally Party.”
Her tougher rival Eric Zemmour has drawn defectors from her camp, including her niece. And while making it look less extreme on Islam and immigration, she is now expected to win the 7 percent vote share he won.
Marine Le Pen has crafted a coherent anti-immigration and anti-EU message and Emmanuel Macron has described her policies as racist.
Le Pen had previously expressed an admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and relied on a loan from a Russian bank to finance her presidential campaign in 2017. She now condemns Russia's invasion of Ukraine while warning of the danger of sanctions on the French economy.
The 53-year-old has promised to stop abuse of the right to asylum, by holding a referendum on immigration restriction. She also wants to ban the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public.
She also seeks to transform the European Union into an alliance of countries that does not find a challenge from European laws and to withdraw France from the integrated leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Opinion polls give Le Pen a real chance of winning. The second and final round of this campaign will decide whether or not she can do better than the 2017 elections. On the other hand, Macron won more than 27 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, three points higher than in 2017. But he is no longer an unknown figure and many voters who voted for him the first time are tired of him. He remains the favorite to win, but converging polls indicate that the race is still wide open.