This unconventional French election race is far from over, but there is a clear front-runner: 39-year-old former economy minister Emmanuel Macron now has over a 60 percent chance of becoming the next French president, pollsters tell us. What's that going to look like?
On the surface, a Macron presidency would seem to offer something for everyone: a pro-globalization, pro-immigration, pro-European, pro-reform candidate who appeals to both the left and right, who is both populist and a member of the educated elite. He is a darling of the mainstream media and the hope of many voters from both the Socialist camp and the center-right.
But the Cult of Macron would face a rude awakening if their leader gets all the way to Elysee Palace, which would be his first gig as an elected leader.
On paper, President Macron would have powers over foreign affairs Donald Trump can only dream of, thanks to the generosity of the Fifth Republic's constitution. He can negotiate with foreign powers, ratify treaties, and decide to go to war -- all without consulting parliament. The globalist and former banker would be immediately welcomed by Western nations as a partner who could get things done.
The domestic front is much trickier. The French president appoints the prime minister and other senior administration figures -- a straightforward process if the parliamentary majority is from the president's party; he then controls the legislative agenda. But Macron's nascent En Marche party has never fielded candidates for election, including Macron himself. It's possible a number of existing deputies from the embattled Socialist Party will change flags. Even so, France's mainstream parties are fracturing and this election is likely to yield a fragmented and obstreperous parliament rather than one committed to his agenda.
Even if he manages to bend parliament to his will, the bigger question is whether Macron's program can live up to the hype. It's hard to overstate the challenge facing the next French president. Unrest is never far from the surface in many areas, youth unemployment is a blight on the social fabric; a decades-long, systematic failure to create jobs and to assimilate immigrants, combined with frequent revelations of public corruption, has driven a large chunk of voters away from mainstream politics. Many educated professionals and entrepreneurs have fled to London, Brussels, and other global cities.
In short, the French model of inclusive growth funded by a massive state sector has been broken for a long time. A cyclical upturn has helped France's economy look a bit better, but that's deceptive. The state comprises a larger share of the economy than any other major country, but delivers less in the way of opportunity and social mobility than ever before.
France tops OECD nations for government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product.
These aren't problems that will be fixed by tinkering, which was the style of Socialist President Francois Hollande, whose popularity has cratered.
Macron released his economic policy two months before the first round of voting. A frenzy of policy proposals has followed, yet it's hard to see how they form a coherent picture.
He wants to create a single tax of around 30 percent for all income from capital, bringing France's high taxation of capital closer to the EU average. The corporate tax rate, which has been coming down, will be reduced to the European average of 25 percent of the five-year period. He's pledging a 50 billion euro ($53 billion) public investment program and 20 billion euros of tax cuts to be shared between individuals and businesses. That would be paid for with 60 billion euros in spending cuts and low-interest borrowing. He has also pledged to get the budget deficit down to within the 3 percent EU limit. There is more flexibility for employers but also some extensions of the welfare state.
Some of his ideas hold promise, but they fall short of the radicalism that his rhetoric would suggest. Fundamentally, Macron is a centrist who has built his following by discrediting the (centrist) establishment of French politics. The result is yet more centrism, albeit wrapped in a more glamorous package. While the National Front’s Marine Le Pen proudly rejects ties to both the right and the left in this presidential campaign, Macron has decided -- perhaps unsurprisingly given his long record of pragmatism -- to claim both.
"In wanting to satisfy the right of the left and the left of the right, Emmanuel Macron would deliver a very unambitious program which is likely to be a continuation of Hollandism," said an article in Le Figaro, summarizing the views of what it said were a panel of high-level civil servants who studied the program.
Being compared to Hollande, possibly the most unpopular president in French history, isn't a great sign. As Hollande's economy minister, Macron was part of the hard-fought effort to end France's 35-hour work week and make the labor market more flexible. In order to pass its watered-down version of the original, the government had to invoke special powers to bypass parliament and even its own party.
In some ways, the Elysee is a poisoned palace. Given sweeping constitutional powers and a seat of such extraordinary opulence and grandeur, it's hard for a French president, so far only ever a man, to live up to the hype. And French voters are easily disillusioned; the fall can be as quick as the rise, as both Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande learned.
Jean-Luc Melanchon, a left-wing firebrand and presidential candidate, addressed a rally of tens of thousands in Paris this weekend, demanding insurrection and calling for a "sixth republic" in which power is less centered in the presidency. The Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon has made similar noises. Such calls will only intensify.
There is still time for surprises before the first round of voting on April 23. A crucial debate Monday will give voters a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side. (Brave is the analyst who, even now, would write off the embattled Republican candidate Francois Fillon, a Formula 1 and mountaineering enthusiast who is nothing if not tenacious.) And yet the biggest surprise of this election may be how little of the change voters are demanding gets delivered.
Macron the candidate has so far enjoyed an almost charmed ride. But Macron the president will not: If he can't deliver change from the top, it will be imposed from the streets.