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France: It's getting tight for Macron: does the French president still have a future?

"Dad, are we going to have a civil war soon?" The question hits Lucas ’father Philippe suddenly, one evening, via text message. His son, who lives with his mother in a Paris suburb, has just seen one of the television debates in which this topic has been discussed for weeks: Is France facing such an ordeal that pent-up aggression could result in violence?

Lucas is no longer a small child, you can explain things to a 14-year-old, says Philippe. He still wants to calm him down. “But no, there will be no war with us. It is sometimes argued, but with words. Don't worry. "Is it a good answer? Philippe later told of his doubts about this during a video meeting with Parisian friends.

The disturbing debate was brought up by an open letter from former generals and other members of the French military, some of whom were still active, in the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles (Current Values). They drew the threat scenario of a civil uprising, warned of a "smoldering civil war", of "Islamism and hordes from the suburbs". The rulers should finally act, otherwise military intervention would be necessary.

The fire letter appeared on April 21, exactly 60 years after a failed coup attempt by French generals in Algeria against President Charles de Gaulle. There was no other specific reason; they were based only on a vague feeling that customs in the country were brutalized and that the danger was increasing everywhere. It has increased steadily since the 2015 terrorist attacks.

The generals' threat was an affront to Emmanuel Macron

It took the government a few days to respond. Defense Minister Florence Parly then called the initiative "unacceptable" and announced sanctions. According to the constitution, members of the French army only have to carry out orders and put their own political views on hold. It was not until 1945 that soldiers were given the right to vote. Your chief commander is the president.

The letter was an affront to Emmanuel Macron - especially as a second manifesto followed by soldiers who defended the authors of the first. This time the signatories remained anonymous. Macron's authority was damaged, but he made no comment. Rather, he is on the international stage - sometimes he organizes a video summit against hate speech on the Internet with New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, then he invites people to talk about the financing of African economies.

If the action by the military annoyed him, the 43-year-old did not show it. His complexion isn't quite as tanned as it was a year ago - at the time, his communications department hastened to explain that he had been working in the sun for hours on the terrace of the Élysée Palace during the first lockdown and therefore looked like he was looking returned from vacation. Not everywhere in France, where you were allowed to leave the house for a maximum of an hour and within a radius of only one kilometer, despite the beautiful spring weather, was not well received.

This year Macron is a little paler. But he still appears in a good mood and dynamic. As if he wanted to signal that he still has a lot to do, even beyond the year that remains to him in this legislative period. On Wednesday morning, when museums, theaters, cinemas, shops and the outdoor areas of cafes and restaurants reopened, he and his Prime Minister Jean Castex had an espresso on a terrace near his office.

The President wants to signal: I have the situation under control

They sat chatting casually as if it were easy to rule France in times of pandemic. Afterwards Macron did a little lap in the quarter - one hand loosely in his pocket, friendly looking around and greeting, with security guards and journalists in the wake. The pictures conveyed: The President has the situation under control. In doing so, he responded to his critics not with words, but with gestures.

The rebelling generals received applause from Marine Le Pen. The right-wing populist let it be known that she shared their fear of impending chaos in France. Therefore, invite them to "join us in order to be part of the beginning battle". Which battle she meant, she also said: the presidential election in exactly one year.

She is running for the third time and has a good chance of reaching the runoff again. The Macron-Le Pen duel is predicted to be the most likely to be reissued, as in 2017, with the gap between the two melting. According to surveys, Le Pen could now expect 43 percent. Four years ago it was 34 percent. In the second round, many voters voted in favor of Macron in order to prevent Le Pen. But since then he has turned away many of them, especially supporters of the left, with his business-friendly reform policy.

Philippe from Paris, Lucas ’father, is one of them. In the 2017 election, he ticked the first round with the socialist Benoît Hamon, and in the second, grudgingly with Macron. "I never liked him, he is a typical product of the French elite: arrogant and aloof," says Philippe. If there is another decision between the head of state and Le Pen, he will probably abstain - like many others.

Could it be tight then?

Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen has changed her strategy

In any case, Le Pen continues to work on changing its image. In 2018 she changed the party name from Front National to Rassemblement National (RN) and continued her strategy of "defoliation". So she tries to detach the RN from the legacy of her all too openly right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The ideological core remains with advocating a ban on immigration. However, it has refrained from some controversial positions such as the demand for France to exit the EU and the euro, and recently it has even advocated repayment of national debt. Otherwise, she says, there is a risk of "loss of confidence in France's word".

The 52-year-old is now so moderate that Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin - a Republican plant and domestic political hardliner - described her as "lax" on a television program. In relation to radical Islam, she is "not tough enough", said Darmanin, and mockingly advised her: "You should take vitamins."

Le Pen, dressed in an elegant black trouser suit, renounced the sardonic grin she used to like to show in such situations. With a serious expression, she replied that she was fighting Islamism, but that she was not attacking Islam as a religion. These are new tones.

In fact, 42 percent of the French no longer see the RN as a threat to democracy. “Le Pen has really become part of the country's political landscape,” says pollster Emmanuel Rivière. Among the 25 to 34 year olds, the RN even comes first. "However, their ability to find partners beyond their own party lines remains relatively limited," said Rivière.

President Macron relies on an alliance against Le Pen

This is exactly Macron's chance: That a majority of the French still reject a right-wing extremist at the head of the state, which is strong but isolated. He could once again stylize the 2022 election as a decision between a progressive, pro-European vision on the one hand and a backward-looking, nationalist worldview on the other. From January he will hold the EU Council Presidency and can present himself as a leading figure in the European Union.

But at home the pressure the president has been under has long been great. During the month-long demonstrations of the “yellow vests” from autumn 2018, the anger of many people about social injustices vented, sometimes violently. Tough protests against a planned pension reform followed.

In the corona pandemic, there is criticism of Macron's solo decisions. Despite a generous short-time work allowance and billions in aid for particularly affected industries, individual companies, artists or low-income families, the mood is fearful. The birth rate was recently the lowest it has been since the Second World War. The pandemic also threatens to wipe out Macron's record. If the French economy was still on the upswing at the beginning of 2020, the country is now heavily indebted and with high unemployment.

Who could still challenge the president

Even so, the once large popular parties, the socialists and the republicans, hardly benefit from it. They, and especially the French Greens, achieved good results in the local elections last year, and this is to be expected in the regional elections in June. But in the presidential election, the votes of the left-wing voters are likely to be split between those of the socialists, the Greens and the radical left in the absence of a common candidate. Therefore, Macron's primary aim is to weaken the Republicans. He recently promised to strengthen the security forces and intensify the fight against drug trafficking.

Even among those Republicans, several applicants are competing for the candidacy. The former EU Commissioner and Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier just let it be known in an interview that he had “huge ambitions for my country” and suggested a three to five year immigration ban for people from outside the EU. That sounds like an election campaign, but the 70-year-old has so far been little perceived as a domestic politician. Unlike Edouard Philippe, who was Macron's popular premier until 2020. The conservative never joined the ruling party and is now mayor of the port city of Le Havre again. Philippe would represent a policy similar to that of the President, but a different style - more matter-of-fact, more sober.

Perhaps that could calm France down. So that 14-year-olds no longer have to seriously worry about a civil war.

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