LE PECQ – “I'm standing again as candidate for the French presidency."
Those words, or some variation along those lines, were the most glaring omission in a prime-time address to the nation on Tuesday night by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The 27-minute speech, delivered against a backdrop of the red-white-and-blue tricolor flag and an embossed seal of the French Republic, swept back over France's fight against the coronavirus pandemic, pitched forward to its economic recovery and spoke encouragingly of French strengths but also cautioned of challenges and vulnerabilities.
It was a televised declaration that sounded very much like a re-election campaign launch — without actually saying so.
That, certainly, is how it was seen by political opponents who have already declared their ambitions to unseat Macron and limit him to a one-term president when the country votes in April.
“Clearly, Emmanuel Macron is a candidate,” tweeted far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is hoping to improve on his fourth place in the 2017 election that put Macron in power as France’s youngest-ever president.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, roundly beaten by Macron in the 2017 presidential run-off, called the address “a campaign speech.”
For now, not officially declaring himself up for re-election is strategically advantageous for 43-year-old Macron.
From the gilded offices of the presidential Elysee Palace, Macron can appear to be above electoral politicking and what is already shaping up as a fractious and bruising campaign. It is trickier for opposing candidates to attack a standing president who hasn't yet rolled up his sleeves and waded officially into the fray. Because the president incarnates French authority, attacking the office runs the risk for Macron's opponents of appearing uncouth and unpatriotic.
Ambiguity also enables Macron to use the privileges of the presidency to campaign without saying so. He meets and greets voters across France and commands airtime while traveling here and jetting there on what is ostensibly presidential business. Access to France's purse strings also enables him to direct taxpayers' money to needs and causes that, his future campaign team hopes, will also make him a more attractive candidate.
Behind the scenes, a Macron re-election effort is already well underway. And the recipe that worked so effectively for him in 2017 remains effectively unchanged: He is again working to dominate the middle ground of French politics and draw in voters from both right and left.
A priority for his campaign team will be to suck support away from conservative and far-right candidates who are polling more strongly than contenders on the left. Not declaring doesn't seem to be doing Macron any harm: Polling of voter intentions has for months now suggested that he is the front-runner, with a sizeable but by no means impregnable cushion.
“When you start launching a campaign, necessarily that encroaches on the work,” Macron's spokesman, Gabriel Attal, said Wednesday. “We need to be 100% at work.”
Macron isn't alone in deliberately keeping people guessing. The biggest impact on the race so far has been made by another undeclared but expected contender: Eric Zemmour. A candidate in all but name, the rabble-rousing TV pundit is surging from the far right and, despite repeated convictions for hate speech, polling neck and neck with Le Pen behind Macron. An official Zemmour candidacy may be just days away.
But there is a danger of the campaign and its issues running away from Macron, and of other candidates setting the tone, if he plays a waiting game for too long. Already, Zemmour and Le Pen's focus on immigration and the threats they say it poses to French identity and prosperity are distracting from themes of economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction that Macron counts among his strengths.
Opponents are also already complaining that Macron is blurring the lines between president and candidate, giving him an unfair advantage. Election rules that require an equitable share of airtime for candidates will kick in from January and apply to Macron, too.
Get-out-the-vote drives and supporters will also need to be mobilized, rallies organized and funding raised and registered. At almost the same stage in the last presidential election, then-President Francois Hollande was gearing up to make his intentions known. It was on Dec. 1, 2016, that he announced in a prime-time address that he would not seek a second 5-year term.
Nothing in Macron's speech suggested a similar route. Macron made clear he feels that works remains to be done after a first term thrown off course by the pandemic and by months of angry protests against his government before the pandemic struck.
The clearest hint of his intentions came when Macron spoke of overhauling France's pension system. He previously had promised to push the difficult reform through as president. But he said Tuesday that must now wait for “clear decisions” in 2022.
Without actually saying so, he could hardly have been clearer.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.