Can Russia Derail a French Front-Runner?

Emmanuel Macron may be the last best hope to stop the Putin-backed populist tide in Europe, and the Russians know it.

Robert Pratta / Reuters

PARIS—Perhaps it’s a badge of honor. Emmanuel Macron, the surprise front-runner in the race for the French presidency—the man now given the best chance to meet and defeat right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in the final round of elections this May—now alleges his campaign is a target of Russian-backed hacking and fake news.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday dismissed such claims. “We didn’t have and do not have any intention of interfering in internal affairs of other countries, or in their electoral processes in particular,” Peskov insisted. Such charges are part of a “hysterical” campaign against Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said.

But the head of Macron’s party wouldn’t give an inch, sketching the kind of cyberattacks that became infamous in the American presidential campaign and continue to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. election results. If these attacks succeeded, said Richard Ferrand, Macron’s campaign “would become extremely difficult if not impossible.”

“We are in the presence of an orchestrated attempt by a foreign power to destabilize a presidential candidate,” Ferrand said.

The current French government made it clear on Wednesday that it takes that possibility very seriously. President François Hollande asked his security cabinet to brief him on the cyberthreat to the upcoming elections, and Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was perfectly blunt: “We will not accept any interference whatsoever in our electoral process, whether by Russia or any other state,” he said. “After what happened in the United States, it is our responsibility to take all steps necessary to ensure that the integrity of our democratic process is fully respected.”

Macron, a 39-year-old former wunderkind investment banker at Rothschild and economy minister under Hollande, stands for just about everything Putin and his favored politicians in the West oppose. Indeed, Macron may be the last, best chance liberal internationalism has to resist the populist wave that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump, and if it brings us Le Pen she is determined to destroy the European Union as we know it. Macron represents what might be called the radical center, and it will hold, or not, depending on his success.


“Neither left, nor right,” is how Macron likes to style his movement En Marche!. But if the rhetoric about transcending traditional party politics is lofty in a conventionally cheesy way, Macron’s decision to quit the Hollande cabinet months before former Prime Minister Manuel Valls did the same, and then to eschew the Socialist Party primary, now looks like incredible political foresight.

Or perhaps just pure dumb luck. Because as both mainstream parties, the Socialista and Les Républicains, have tacked hard left and hard right, Macron finds himself exactly where he hoped to be—popular, unencumbered, and leading a potentially broad coalition of the center.

On the right, François Fillon of Les Républicains—a traditionalist, a committed Catholic, a would-be French incarnation of Margaret Thatcher—is running on a platform of small government and deregulation of the type almost never seen in mainstream French politics. Relying on an atmosphere of broad discontent with the expansive state bureaucracy, he has proposed over €100 billion a year in spending cuts, as well as the elimination of 500,000 public sector jobs. Adjusting for population, that’s the equivalent of 3 million public sector jobs in the U.S.

Either Fillon or Le Pen would introduce a host of new challenges to the European Union at a time when it is hemmed in by both Putin and Trump. Fillon would favor the re-emergence of austerity in the Eurozone, which would exacerbate the Greek crisis and hit southern economies still suffering from a lack of aggregate demand. His pro-Russia tendencies (he and Vladimir Putin are said to be on a first name basis) would further increase tensions with Germany and other EU members about how to respond in Ukraine, or to a hypothetical crisis in the Baltics. And Marine Le Pen, whose campaign has been partly financed with loans from Russian banks, wants for her part an outright “Frexit.”

For months, the left, encumbered by the astoundingly low approval ratings of President François Hollande’s government, despaired at the seemingly inevitable looming choice between these two anathemas. And then the emploi fictif scandal, the allegations that Fillon had hired his wife as a legislative assistant, paying her more than €800,000 over several years out of public funds for a job she never did, began to torpedo Fillon’s campaign. It didn’t fit well with his talk of austerity and cutting hundreds of thousands of government jobs.

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As a result, Fillon has dropped precipitously in the polls, with Macron so far the beneficiary.

On the left, after Hollande bowed out of the race, the Socialist Party divided between a wing that wants to reform, and a wing that wants to reimagine. The latter wing emerged from a low-turnout primary victorious, led by the eco-socialism of Benoît Hamon, who rose to prominence on a platform that called for a universal basic income. Although he has gradually walked back his proposed €750 per month giveaway, which would have cost €600 billion per year, or 30 percent of French GDP, large swaths of the party are worried that in a general election his call to eventually “tax the robots” lacks a widespread appeal beyond the already converted.

Having seen both Brexit and Trump, the gravity of this year’s election, and the danger of splitting votes in the first round escapes few.

“I can’t vote for Hamon’s platform,” Socialist Party Deputy François Lance told Franceinfo radio toward the end of January, “It’s a project meant for 2040… I can’t go before my voters and tell them I’m behind it, they wouldn’t at all understand.” Another minister has publicly defended the possibility of “being a socialist, and also supporting Macron.”


As a result of the Socialist Party’s leftward turn, and the implosion of the Fillon campaign, Macron has increasingly become the non-Le Pen frontrunner. For the first time, recent polling shows him advancing to the second round, with 21-22 percent of the vote, behind Le Pen’s 25 percent and in front of Fillon’s 18-20 percent.

French voters have a history of thinking strategically, and Macron benefits from the broadest range of acceptability. Forty-four percent of the general public say they want him to have more influence on politics, and 48 percent named him the political personality of 2016—in both instances, more than any other candidate.

When questioned about their first round voting intentions, 43 percent declare that they “could” vote for Macron, with only 36 percent saying the same about Fillon and Hamon. In hypothetical matchups for round two, which pits the top two vote getters from the first round against each other, Fillon beats Le Pen 60-40 percent, and Macron, 65-35 percent.

This indicates two things: First, that left-wing voters are more likely to stay at home when faced with the choice between Fillon and Le Pen, but will come out in support of Macron to keep the National Front away from the presidency. And second, that Fillon supporters will break more heavily for Macron’s liberalisme doux, which aligns more closely to Fillon’s economic platform than Marine Le Pen’s statist protectionism. Because if they broke massively for Le Pen, we should expect to see her portion of the vote increase against Macron, rather than decrease.


Didn’t 2016 teach us not to put too much faith in polling, though? Perhaps. But then again, it also showed us that maybe we should look more closely at something anecdotal—crowd sizes as an indicator for the effect of energy and enthusiasm on a race. And crowds? Macron draws those. Bigly.

At his recent official campaign launch rally, Macron stood before nearly 10,000 supporters in Lyon and called for the defense of an open West, implicitly taking aim at Trump, and offering a vision of how he saw his nation’s future. “To all those [scientists, academics, researchers, entrepreneurs] who today embody innovation and excellence in the United States,” he said, “From next May, you will have a new home—France.”

Bucking the anti-globalist trend, Macron has made it a hallmark of his platform (often justly characterized by his opposition as “vague”) to call for more Europe. Like increased fiscal integration in the Eurozone, and the development of a common European defense force.

“There is no wall in my campaign,” he declared at a recent rally, in a thinly veiled reference to Trump’s Mexico project. “Can you remember what happened to the Maginot Line?”

And yet, the 39-year-old former banker, never before elected to office, could be the last line of defense against the collapse of the liberal world order itself.

—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey