This time almost five years ago, Caroline Janvier was a member of the newly elected Emmanuel Macron’s army of would-be parliamentarians.
These “novices”, as La République En Marche – the pop-up party created to bring Macron to power – called them, were so green they were sent on a one-day crash course on how to run a campaign, organize and motivate a team and deal with the press.
Janvier, 40, a graduate of the elite Sciences Po institute who had been working with an association for disabled people, won her seat in Loiret, south of Paris, despite being a political unknown.
On Saturday, she traveled to see Macron, who is seeking re-election, staged his first and last campaign meeting in Europe’s biggest concert hall in the Paris district of La Défense – an event his team promised would be a Super Bowl-style occasion.
About 30,000 supporters turned out as well as 600 accredited journalists to hear Macron outline his programme, the most contested measure of which promises another attempt at raising France’s retirement age to 65.
He spoke for two hours, urging voters to turn out and not to believe “anyone who says the election is already decided”. “Do you want a stronger France? Then join us!” I have concluded.
“I’m very happy to be seeing our candidate at last. It’s been several weeks that we’ve been out campaigning and leafleting and we haven’t had meetings and rallies with him because he’s been busy with Ukraine, so it’ll be a good moment for us,” Janvier said. “We’re keen to know his state of mind and hear him outline his project for the next five years.”
Macron was in Pau and Anjou last month and traveled to Dijon last week, but to the dismay of MPs such as Janvier and his supporters, his campaign appearances have been few and far between. The president’s mind has been on other matters, including attempts to mediate between the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that have taken his eye off the presidential ball.
After an initial bump in support for Macron after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the domestic consequences of the conflict – especially soaring fuel and food prices – are beginning to bite and polling suggests the far right’s Marine Le Pen is closing in.
A poll by Elabe published on Saturday showed Macron on 28.5% and Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) on 22%, with the radical left La France Insoumise’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 15%, followed by the extreme right Éric Zemmour and mainstream right Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains.
However, fears that voters who believe the result is inevitable will either stay at home or use their first-round ballot as a “protest vote”, or to support one of the several underdog candidates, are fostering a growing unease that anything could happen.
Jérôme Fourquet of the pollster Ifop said: “Polls are not predictions, intentions to vote are just that. It’s what people say they intend to vote, but will they actually do so? We try to take precautions with our methodology, but right up until the last minute, people can change their minds.
“In a presidential election the abstention rate is usually relatively low… but if we’re in a situation where there’s high abstention, then we have a real problem. It’s like a photo; it becomes blurry and complicated.”
Janvier decided to put her job on hold in 2016 to join Macron and En Marche!, the party later named La République en Marche (LREM).
Her husband, an agricultural adviser, agreed to look after their three children, then aged seven, five and two, a temporary arrangement that has become permanent since her election to parliament.
Her victory as a political novice was even more remarkable given her Loiret constituency, which includes the historical city of Orléans, saw Le Pen narrowly beat Macron in the first round of the 2017 presidential with 23.53% of the vote (losing in the second, when Macron polled 63.16%). A second Loiret MP, medical doctor Stéphanie Rist, was also among the 150 or so Macron “newbies” from civil society to enter parliament in the general election that year.
“It’s the first time I’ve engaged in politics and it’s because I engaged with Emmanuel Macron’s project,” Janvier said back in 2017. “Yes, people wonder if we would be strong enough to challenge the government, push through their projects and voice their demands, because we have no experience, but we really want to make change happen. We may not yet have parliamentary skills, but we are keen and energetic.”
Today, she is even more passionate about politics and plans to stand again in the legislative elections in June. “I am very proud of what we have succeeded in doing individually and collectively in what has been a difficult five years with the Gilets janes protests, the health situation and now the war in Ukraine.
“We made some mistakes and perhaps we new MPs were a little arrogant at first thinking we were going to shake up political life in the country, but while we weren’t so good on style we were good on substance.
“Personally, I respected my political engagement to my voters and did what I said I would do. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I didn’t, but I tried.”
Janvier admitted LREM has had difficulty putting down roots in the countryside, where the mainstream right Les Républicains and Parti Socialiste, which were cannibalised at a national level by Macron in 2017, have remained relatively strong in local elections.
Political analysts have suggested LREM will last as long as Macron – who is constitutionally prevented from standing for a third consecutive term – does.
“That’s the whole political challenge for us, to make the LREM or whatever it is called by the end of his second mandate a real political force with a clear doctrine and support locally,” Janvier added.
“It’s true that the situation is less solid for us locally than nationally, but I believe it takes at least 15 years to establish a party and if neither Les Républicains nor the Parti Socialiste is in the second round of this election, I think we’ ll see a different strategy from their supporters and maybe more of a willingness to create alliances.”
Fourquet said the hardest part for Macron was not his re-election, but what happens afterwards.
“If in the first round Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have 50% of the votes, that means there’s 50% of the country that doesn’t support them,” Fourquet said.
“And if he is then elected [in the second round] against a Le Pen who does well, he will have succeeded in crushing the right, but inherited a fractured country that will be difficult to manage. It’s worth remembering that a liter of petrol is at more than €2 when it was €1.40 when we had the Gilets janes crisis.
“The last time Macron tried to reform pensions we had 55 days of nonstop strikes. There are potentially powerful tensions in the country.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism