Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron decisively won the French presidential election on May 7th, taking around 65% of the vote, versus Marine Le Pen’s 35%, according to projected results. However, having reported through the Brexit and Trump upsets of 2016, we weren’t going to be caught off guard—so we put together an analysis of Macron’s biggest missteps, which could prove informative if he stumbled at the final hurdle. As the 39-year-old newcomer seeks to repair a deeply divided country (turnout was historically low and a record share of voters cast blank and spoiled ballots), going over his mistakes may show how he can win over the doubters now that he’s in power.
Even after Trump and Brexit, a Marine Le Pen victory in France’s hard-fought presidential race seemed near impossible. Days out from the final vote on May 7, polls showed Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, millions of votes behind her upstart centrist rival, Emmanuel Macron. He had the endorsements of both the main political parties’ candidates, of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, of sitting president François Hollande, and even from across the pond, of former US president Barack Obama, a beloved figure in France. And yet, Macron managed to lose his way in the final weeks and days of the campaign.
How did that happen? Here’s a rundown of his biggest last-minute stumbles, which took Macron from a 20-point polling lead to a crushing defeat.
Macron had reason to fete his victory in the election’s first-round vote on April 23. He had, after all, reached the pinnacle of French politics just a year after founding his own political party, all by the age of 39. The gaffe was in how he celebrated.
Rather than playing humble, the candidate retreated with his staff (link in French), along with actors, singers, and political confidants, to a high-end bistro in Paris’s posh 6th arrondissement, a move that played up his biggest weakness: his elite image.
Le Pen pounced, calling him ”arrogant” and accusing him of acting as if ”he’d already won.” (Macron, who won 23.9% of vote in the first round between 11 candidates, came out only slightly ahead of Le Pen, who won 21.4%.)
Le Pen’s number two, Florian Philippot, chimed in: “Mr Macron went into another Parisian restaurant with his showbiz friends. (It was) sparkle and sequins,” he said. “He is a lot too confident and a lot too arrogant, as though the French people in reality don’t count.”
It was the perfect moment to cast Macron as the yuppie, social climber, and multi-millionaire former Rothschild banker who would surely fail the working classes as president.
To make matters worse, Macron didn’t heed a golden rule of politics—don’t shoot the messenger. He laid into journalists who questioned the move.
It was the perfect staging ground to shake off Macron’s celebratory faux-pas: a visit to his hometown of Amiens, where nearly 300 factory jobs were under threat of being outsourced to Poland. A local gets back to his roots, sheds his urbane image, and proves to the masses how much he cares. Instead, he showed up in dapper suit, not at the factory where workers had formed a picket line, but at the offices of their union bosses.
Cue Le Pen, who swooped in unannounced to rally workers on the picket line. She told them that the globalist Macron was showing “contempt” by meeting with bosses rather than talking directly to them. “Emmanuel Macron is with the oligarchs, with the Medef [employers’ association],” she declared. “I am with the French workers.” By the time Macron reached the scene to do damage control, it was too late. Even after over an hour of him explaining the benefits of globalization and calling her plan to save their jobs a lie, it was clear she’d won this skirmish.
That Macron secured the endorsement of his center-left rival from the first round, Benoît Hamon, was a gimme. Hamon, stunted by his own party’s failures, only had 7% of the first-round vote to give. The real prize lay in courting far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the roughly 7 million voters (19.5% of the total) who’d backed him in the first round. In Macron’s position, an experienced politician might have played it safe and done exactly what Le Pen did—directly target these voters, who felt let down by the establishment. But hubris got the best of both Mélenchon and Macron (who apparently didn’t hear about the train wreck of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton). Mélenchon refused to endorse Macron, and in turn, Macron refused to make a “gesture” to Mélenchon supporters.
Mélenchon left the decision to his voters in an online poll, which resulted in 65% of the 450,000 respondents saying they’d rather sit this one out. The hashtag #SansMoiLe7Mai—a promise to abstain on the May 7 vote—went viral, adding to the voter apathy that played into Le Pen’s hands. The most Mélenchon ever mustered was to tell his followers not to back her.
The fawning media crowned Macron the winner of a one-on-one televised debate days before the runoff vote. He’d proven he was a grown up, impervious to Le Pen’s ruthless attacks and false claims, they said. In reality, voters saw Macron get drawn into a heated bout of name-calling—and no one beats Le Pen at that. She called him a “smirking banker.” He called her a “parasite.” And on it went, proving that neither had the gumption or depth to just talk policy.
As it turns out, the vision of Macron as an outsider taking on France’s old guard was an illusion. A former economy minister in Hollande’s unpopular Socialist government, Macron should have steered clear of a president with a 4% approval rating. Instead, he embraced his endorsement (or failed to prevent it), to which Le Pen responded that this would only help the far right.
Macron made a similar mistake when he circulated a video of himself swooning over a cheery phone call with Barack Obama weeks before the final vote. Obama followed that with a full-fledged video endorsement. Despite his international celebrity, Obama’s endorsement had hurt the Remain campaign in the run-up to Brexit, a vote that similarly came down to national identity.
If Macron had worn these endorsements more lightly, the independence and dynamism voters were seeking might have shown through. Instead he seemed very much the candidate of the establishment.