It is spring 2027, and Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are walking out together on to the stone steps of the Élysée Palace. A red carpet has been laid down in the courtyard for the occasion: the ceremonial handover of presidential power.
The far-right, populist leader — Macron’s rival and foil for the past decade — has just won the election to replace him, in a political earthquake for one of the EU’s most influential members and its second-biggest economy.
As a military band plays, a smiling Le Pen accompanies Macron to a black sedan at the end of the red carpet. They shake hands. He gets in the car and leaves her standing there as France’s new president.
This vision of the future no longer seems far-fetched to many in France.
Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (RN) party have newfound legitimacy since winning an unprecedented haul of seats in parliament last year and momentum in the polls since entering into the institutional mainstream.
In contrast, Macron has struggled to set a clear direction since being re-elected a year and half ago and the loss of his parliamentary majority has curbed his ability to realise his lofty reform ambitions.
Although his second term still has just over three years to left to go, there is an increasing sense of urgency within his government about the many goals yet unrealised: reaching full employment, making France more business friendly, and improving costly yet often ineffective public services.
Driving them is the belief that if they fail to show that the government can provide effective solutions to citizens’ problems — the cost of living, access to quality education and health, or crime, to name only a few — then they risk leaving the door open to a protest vote that may sweep Le Pen into office and dynamite Macron’s legacy.
François Patriat, a veteran senator who is closely allied with the president, admits that handing over the keys to the Élysée Palace to Le Pen would be a “nightmare” for Macron.
“He knows very well that if she succeeds him, everyone will condemn him by saying not only did Macron not do anything, he also ushered in Marine Le Pen,” he says. “It is his nightmare, so I imagine even though he does not say it openly, that he sees his job every day as preventing this from happening.”
To be sure, much can still change both domestically and internationally that will affect the succession, and other candidates will emerge. Voters may well decide against Le Pen — as they did in the past three times she ran for the top job — if they doubt her ability to lead, or fear the fallout her nationalist, anti-immigration programme and inchoate economic policies would have on France and the EU.
Nevertheless, Macron is struggling to govern. He can no longer impose his legislative agenda, with his centrist alliance roughly 40 votes short of a majority in parliament. The parlous state of France’s public finances also means there is less leeway for the government to spend its way out of problems, as it did during the pandemic and the energy crisis.
Polls show that his public support has rarely been lower, and his authority has begun to wane even over politicians from his own ranks.
French presidents often seek to build their legacies on the world stage, and Macron has been influential in EU affairs, but his ability to play the statesman has been limited by how conflicts in Ukraine and Israel have upended the global political order.
Macron’s allies reject talk of what happens after his presidential term as premature and irrelevant, pointing to the president’s mantra that he intends to work “until the last 15 minutes” of the term.
“His obsession is that the 10 years he spends at the helm brings about useful and deep changes that are in the public interest,” says a member of government and early backer of Macron. “Populists like Marine Le Pen feed off of the inaction and ineffectiveness of government, so he is convinced that everything will depend on our ability to move things forward with bold reforms.”
‘En meme temps’
The challenges facing Macron were encapsulated in the drama that erupted this month over a long-promised immigration reform.
As public opinion has hardened against immigration, the government spent months crafting a plan that borrowed policies both from left and right in a bid to solve problems with the system — an approach that Macron calls en meme temps (at the same time) and goes back to his 2017 promise to demolish old partisan divides to enact policies in the public interest.
It included a series of measures that would toughen asylum rules and facilitate removals of people in the country illegally and migrants who commit crimes or pose a terror risk, but also featured a softer, business-friendly policy to give work permits to undocumented people employed in sectors with labour shortages.
Despite months of government lobbying the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party to secure their votes, the proposal nearly collapsed in parliament under attack from the left as too harsh and from the right as too permissive.
To salvage it, Macron acquiesced to changes demanded by the LR that dialled down the soft side of the law and dialled up the repressive side. The revised version tilted so far rightward that Le Pen — sensing a moment where she could hurt Macron and split his centrist alliance — performed a last-minute U-turn and declared that the RN would back it. “It was an intentional kiss of death,” says one RN lawmaker.
The law was approved in parliament in a rowdy late-night vote, but in a rare show of dissent almost a quarter of the 251 MPs in Macron’s alliance voted against the plans, in part because they were loath to vote with the far right. His health minister resigned in protest.
Macron claimed a victory for what he cast as a balanced reform that would build a “necessary shield” against illegal migration and “help us deal with the problems that feed” the RN, he said in the TV interview. “Our fellow citizens tell us we don’t control illegal immigration well enough.”
Le Pen claimed to have won an ideological battle, while leftwing politicians, NGOs, and unions accused Macron of caving to their xenophobic policies.
Mathieu Gallard, an analyst at pollster Ipsos, says Macron had made it a priority to get a law through so as to prove he is not blocked by parliament. “He has destroyed what was left of en meme temps and completed a shift to the right,” he says. “It may have been the only way to save the rest of his term, but at what price?”
The episode also signals how Macron’s earlier tactic for governing without a majority — namely muddling through with ad hoc deals on legislation and then bypassing the assembly using a constitutional override mechanism when that fails — is running out of steam.
Although he opted not to use the override clause known as the 49.3 on the immigration bill, Macron resorted to the tactic in order to ram through an unpopular pension reform in April after months of street protests. An unusual tool in the French system, it grants the executive the power to impose proposed legislation without a vote, unless lawmakers can win a no-confidence vote that then invalidates the draft law and also brings down the government.
As protests raged outside the National Assembly, Macron’s government survived the no-confidence vote by a slim margin, with some MPs appearing to lose their nerve out of a fear that Macron would call early elections.
So far Macron’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, has used the 49.3 clause 22 times, mostly on budget measures, and survived all the no-confidence votes because the opposition was too divided to prevail.
Vincent Martigny, a politics professor at the University of Nice, warns that may not always be the case. “We’ve gotten to the point where the opposition parties could unite to bring down the government because they think they have something to gain,” he says.
“Macron’s method of governing is exhausted and it does not correspond to what the parliament and the country want.”
In Macron’s camp, they reject the idea that they will be stymied in parliament, and point to dozens of laws passed on more consensual topics such as promoting renewable energy, fighting unemployment and helping households cope with inflation.
“The coalition of oppositions seen on immigration won’t soon be repeated,” says Marc Ferracci, an MP for Macron’s Renaissance party. “We just have to keep moving forward in January and go back to important reforms that play to our strengths, such as making the economy more dynamic and removing red tape.”
Taking on the populists
With two-thirds of his presidency now behind him, Macron still has not been able to fulfil a pledge made when he was first elected in May 2017 after trouncing Le Pen — to govern in such a way so as to neutralise the appeal of populists like her.
The 39-year-old political novice swept into office with promises to transform France into a more dynamic economy by putting more people to work and using the additional wealth to reinvest in public services.
Voters who had backed the far-right candidate did so out of “anger, turmoil, and sometimes strong beliefs,” he said in his victory speech, pledging: “I will do everything, in the next five years, so that they no longer have any reason to vote for the extremes.”
Political observers at home and abroad hailed his victory, which came soon after Donald Trump won the White House and the UK voted for Brexit, as a sign that the rise of populism could be resisted.
But since then Le Pen’s appeal to French voters has proved surprisingly resilient. She has championed cost of living issues and courted support in rural areas where people feel abandoned by the closure of schools, hospitals and post offices. The gilets jaunes protests that erupted in 2018 over the government plan to raise a fuel tax allowed her to cast Macron as an out-of-touch technocrat — criticism she has continued to wield against him.
It was not enough, however, to defeat him in 2022. Macron pointed to promises delivered on the economic front, such as reducing chronically high unemployment, lowering corporate taxes, and making France more attractive to international investors.
His government also spent freely to help citizens endure the shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, followed by the war in Ukraine and energy crisis in 2022. In the public sector, teachers and healthcare workers, long underpaid by OECD standards, got significant raises, while courts and prisons got big budget boosts too — at a cost of €600bn to the public debt.
“In both crises, we stuck with our approach to preserve investment and productive capacity, since it will help the economy in the long run and allow us to keep funding public services,” says one adviser.
Yet Macron’s margin of victory over Le Pen fell from 33 points in 2017 to 17 points last year. Again he was helped by the two-round voting system that meant that many leftwing voters backed him in the run-off only to block Le Pen, who they considered a greater threat.
Then Macron’s unexpected loss of parliamentary majority a month later derailed his second-term plans, and began a period of uncharacteristic indecision for the president, which people close to him have struggled to interpret.
Some urged him to seal a governing pact with the conservative LR so as to be able to legislate effectively, but he pushed ahead as if little had changed. The months-long acrimonious pensions battle was among the consequences.
Since then, the climate in France has remained tense, and Macron has not seemed able to grapple with the situation. To move past the pensions fight, he had called for “100 days of calm, unity, ambition, and action for France” and a reboot to focus on policies to improve people’s working lives and salaries.
Instead, in late June, a week of riots exploded in low-income suburbs known as the banlieues after the police shot an unarmed teenager. The war between Israel and Hamas that began in October catalysed not only a rise in antisemitic incidents, but also a return of Islamist terrorist attacks. Two assailants carried out separate knife attacks in which two people died, and the country remains on highest alert level.
The far-right has seized on these events as evidence that out of control immigration is threatening French citizens’ security — even if the connection is tenuous and the government has sought to energetically rebut the critique including with the new law.
Le Pen and her 28-year old lieutenant Jordan Bardella, who heads the RN party, have climbed to the third and fourth spots in polls of the most popular political figures in France.
Polling by Le Monde found that for the first time in a decade, more people now see the RN as a party that can govern and not just be in opposition, and they have opened up a 12-point polling lead against Macron’s party ahead of European parliament elections in June.
Faced with such a resurgent far-right, what is left on Macron’s to-do list for the time he has left in office? His ministers, MPs and advisers offer a laundry list of different initiatives, including some that risk being very difficult, such as repairing the faltering education system.
Few have any real idea of what Macron will do next. One longtime ally described him as “hesitant, impatient, unsure, and in a period of great solitude” as he searches for a way forward.
Macron hinted recently that he would do something in January to reinforce the unity of what he cast as a divided, doubting France. “It is time for a meeting with the nation . . . to give a sense of hope again and appetite for the future,” he said. A government reshuffle to name a new prime minister looks likely after the immigration fight.
The president still sees pushing France to full employment — equivalent to a jobless rate of 5 per cent, from about 7 per cent now — as his core mission since higher labour force participation translates into more wealth and more tax for government coffers.
The member of the government says there is an urgent need to repair French hospitals, schools and the courts, so as to “fight against the feeling of decline” that plagues a swath of the French public and leaves them open to populists’ appeal.
“It cannot take 70 days to renew a passport or weeks to see a doctor, and you have to have faith that your kids are getting a good education,” says the person.
Such day-to-day issues seem far from the high-flying promises of Macron in 2017, but they may be key to ensuring that his successor does not torpedo his legacy.
When asked what policies might keep Le Pen out of the Élysée, Bruno Le Maire, Macron’s long-serving minister of finance and the economy, responds in part with a metaphor: “It is as if we have rolled the boulder almost to the top of the mountain and a final push is needed to make sure it falls down on the right side,” he said. On that side is a more confident and economically successful France where the “authority” of the state is respected, he argued.
Implied in his answer was that the boulder could still roll back and crush them all. “If Le Pen were elected, it would be a collective failure,” says Le Maire.
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