Rebranding the centre: Obama-backed Macron cast as populism slayer in French election

In the final dash of an improbable rise to the verge of the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron still had one more element to add: a sprinkling of Obama stardust.

French candidate's improbable rise breathes new life into the middle way

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or Onwards!, and his wife Brigitte speak with supporters at the restaurant Bowling in Rodez, France, May 4, 2017. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

In the final dash of an improbable rise to the verge of the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron still had one more element to add: a sprinkling of Obama stardust.

The short video endorsement Thursday from the former U.S. president was a dazzling intervention for a candidate blatantly hugging the centre lane, even as he leads Europe's race against populists.

By making it this far, 39-year-old, unproven Macron has already somewhat reinvigorated the believed-moribund middle way.

An Elabe poll released Friday gave Macron 62 per cent of the vote, with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at 38, Reuters reported. If the polls are right and Macron prevails as expected in Sunday's vote against Le Pen, "the centre" could be entirely rebranded.

With a constructive Macron presidency, it might even be resurrected.

It's too early to see that far ahead. But the message from yesterday's video is that, given the chance, Macron intends to dust off Obama's mantle, and pick up where he left off.

It takes a certain kind of confidence to flaunt the endorsement of an ex-president who took a beating from populists worldwide.

But Obama and his liberal values are still popular here. Donald Trump, so admired by Le Pen, is not.

In the lead-up to the vote, not only was Macron compared to a young Barack Obama — as well as Canada's Justin Trudeau — but he's also borrowed some of the same tactics that first helped propel Obama to the White House.

Macron has even enlisted one of Obama's 2008 campaign strategists to help propel him to the Elysee Palace.

Lex Paulson, a French-speaking American who is studying and teaching in Paris, was first invited to hear Macron speak in Lyon in January.

Lex Paulson, an American studying and teaching in Paris, helped to train hundreds of volunteers in the art of talking people into voting for their candidate — at their doorstep. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

"It struck me that I was feeling and reacting emotionally and intellectually very similar to how I had when I saw Barack Obama speak for the first time," Paulson said in a CBC interview at a Paris brasserie.

This is about listening to the voters and not just not just lecturing to them.- Lex Paulson, an American in Paris

But by the time Obama ran for president, "he had run serious and tough races, including losing the race for Congress," said Paulson.

Macron, a political upstart, "is basically doing it as an improviser, for which you have to give him credit. He's achieved an incredible success in the last year. But you also see him struggle with the challenge of being a first-time candidate."

There have been missteps, like Macron's premature victory party at a chi chi restaurant after the first vote. His links to the current presidency and the banking world have seen the former minister branded as a heartless capitalist complicit in the reviled establishment. He's also head of a new movement that's never ruled France.

But there's also the weight of outside expectations. Because of who his rival is, Macron's battle has been heavily invested with much more meaning than simply winning the Elysee.

From the start — just over a year ago — Macron touted as the strength of his new movement, En Marche!, the fact that it straddles the political spectrum, borrowing ideas from the left and from the right.

It is a concept that has not before taken off in France, where the left-right binary has dominated politics for decades.

Also new was Macron's version of Trudeau's "sunny ways," a decentralized campaign — and North American style door-to-door politicking. Paulson helped train hundreds of volunteers on the art of talking people into voting for their candidate — at their doorstep.

Emmanuel Macron attends a campaign rally in Albi, France, May 4. He is riding the centre lane with a vengeance, writes Nahlah Ayed. Only one other person can take credit for his rise: Marine Le Pen herself. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

"The connection was instantaneous," said Paulson, who says he's signed up only as a volunteer. "And it fit within the core principles of the movement: that this is about listening to the voters and not just not just lecturing to them."

Thousands of French citizens signed up to help — and millions bought in, many propelled in no small part by the fear of France ending up with a populist leader.

With Trump's election, the centre that Macron was selling had found new purpose. The middle way was transformed from pablum to prescription. Macron became the anointed, recast as a viable populism slayer. He became the centre's sharp new defender.

Naturally, with Le Pen in the picture, that won him the support of ex-candidates, the current political establishment, France's chief rabbi, and some corners of a media landscape clearly loathe to work under the vagaries of a Le Pen presidency.


It also thrust the creaky international centrist machinery into action.

Why else would the likes of Obama, and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis weigh in publicly in Macron's favour?

"It is nothing less than scandalous for any progressive to keep an equal distance from Le Pen and Macron," wrote Varoufakis in Le Monde's English edition.

"I refuse to be part of a generation of European progressives who could have stopped Marine Le Pen from winning France's Presidency but didn't .… The National Front cannot be allowed to stumble into the Elysee due to our misguided tactical indifference."

It is likely what will motivate an untold number of voters unconvinced that Macron and his middle way is the best for France, but who are also unwilling to take a chance on Le Pen.

'Down on themselves'

Others are drawn to the comfort of a reinvigorated centre. The "sunny ways" have also helped.

"When I started thinking about voting Macron, I didn't know that he was going to get that far," said Patrice Hutin, a Parisian businessman and early supporter of the idea of a centrist candidate.

"French people have been very down on themselves and on their country," he added. But despite the obvious risks associated with a political novice with no party behind him, "there is enough hope that people carried him through the first round."

"If Macron is not elected or if Macron is elected and he's not able to improve the state of the country, of the society of the people in a significant way, next time around it's going to be a disaster," said Hutin.

It's also why Paulson got involved.

'If Europe goes …'

"Because if France elects an extreme right wing, anti-European president, it's the end of European Union," he said.

"Frankly, all the values that I care about — tolerance and pluralism and freedom of thought and solidarity — they're at risk. If Europe goes, I don't know who else is going to stand up for these values."

Right now, that person is Macron, riding the centre lane with a vengeance.

Only one other person can take credit for his rise: Le Pen herself.

If she hadn't made it this far, Macron would not have been cast as the populism slayer. And there would have also been no Obama video, and no stardust.

But even if they lose, Le Pen and her supporters won't be going anywhere.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.