The French presidential election has slipped, almost imperceptibly, into a new phase. Saturday February 25 marked the opening of the process for gathering signatures from local élus (municipal, departmental and regional councillors, but also deputies and senators) for candidates. The Conversation

To be eligible to stand, a candidate must gather 500 signatures, which are vetted by the Constitutional Council. But there’s a twist. The signatures have to come from 30% of the national territory – so you can’t just go and love bomb one area to get your 500 supporters. Candidates have until March 17 to get their signatures. A few days after that, the formal list of candidates will be published.

It’s usually at this point in the campaign, too, that Marine Le Pen (like her father before her) complains that she is struggling for signatures because the parties of “the system” lean on local councillors. In the end, of course, the Le Pens have always obtained their signatures, as we always knew they would. It’s just another opportunity for the Front National to cast itself as the victim.

This time round, though, Le Pen is claiming that she is the victim of a different campaign by “le pouvoir” (the government and the EU) to undermine her (and by extension the French people for whom she claims to speak), by investigating her alleged misuse of European and national funds to cover party expenses. Speaking before a crowd of 3,000 more or less delirious fans in Nantes recently, Le Pen described this as part of a plot by “the system” to help one particular candidate: Emmanuel Macron.

Outsider or insider?

This backhanded compliment to Macron is obviously based on his performance in the opinion polls. But in one aspect at least, Le Pen’s analysis is accurate. Macron is by no means an outsider. Christiane Taubira, François Hollande’s former justice minister described him as a “pur produit du système”.

Macron graduated from the elite Ecole Nationale de l’Adminstration in 2004. Depending on where they place in their cohort, graduates can choose which branch of the civil service they go into, and Macron was in a position to opt for the most prestigious – the Inspection Générale des Finances. Just four years later, however, he bought himself out of his commitment to the state and went to work for Rothschilds. In 2012 he was recommended to Hollande for his Elysée team by “Les Gracques”, a group of centre-left intellectuals, high-ranking civil servants and economists, who take their name from the Gracchi, the Robin Hood brothers of the Roman Republic. Then, in 2014, Hollande moved Macron from the Elysée to the finance ministry.

In France, it is by no means unusual for talented civil servants to be moved sideways into ministerial posts. Macron may not be tied to a party at the moment, but his ascension has nonetheless followed one of the classic paths. Nevertheless, it is this lack of a party that might yet prove to be the weak link in his candidature.

Visiting the headquarters of Macron’s En Marche movement, journalist Nathalie Funès described it as being like “an over-heated start-up”.

The staff, like the 39-year-old candidate, are mainly young (average age 31) and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a lack of experience on the ground. It’s one thing to pack arenas from Lyon to Lille to London with thousands of admiring fans, but it will be quite another, over the next few weeks, to get out into France’s weekend markets.

What might also hamper Macron is his refusal to accept a political label. He has used the expression “neither right nor left”, but that carries an echo of the far right in pre-war France. The term “centre” isn’t altogether helpful, either. Historically, the centrists were the old Christian democratic party and the term “progressiste”, which is also applied to Macron, was another shorthand for moderate reformists. And, again historically, these parties sided with the right.

Macron’s political meaning, then, remains elusive. We are still waiting for his portentously titled ten-point “contract with the nation”, but in a recent media interview he did provide an outline of his plans for the economy. These involved tax reforms to encourage savers to invest in stocks and shares, and reducing the numbers of state employees (though nothing like Fillon’s promised 500,000 job cuts).

Creeping up the ranking

Of all the candidates, Macron looks to be only one using realistic projections of economic growth of less than 2% a year. Perhaps most surprisingly, he also committed himself to bringing the welfare system under state control. Until now, it has been managed by a consortium of unions and employers, but Macron has been highly critical of their inability to reduce the deficit in the system.

It’s not exactly a headline grabbing programme. It is a measured and highly technocratic plan. The headline grabbing is going on elsewhere, with Macron asserting that there is no single French culture but many cultures of France – an approach deliberately intended to get under the skin of Le Pen and Fillon, who are leaning towards nationalist visions of French culture in their campaign promises.

And then there was Macron’s denunciation of colonialism as a “crime against humanity”. What surprised me is that 52% of French people question by IFOP approved of the statement, including 35% of those who claim to be FN supporters (though only 20% of Fillon’s).

While a section of the left-wing electorate, especially Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s, might struggle with Macron’s determination to see the EU and globalisation as vehicles for strengthening the French economy, they may be willing to support a president determined to reconcile France and Algeria and to accept that the “mission civilisatrice” – as French colonialism is described – was not always civilised.

But the real boost, announced in an opinion poll on February 27, is that the 5% of the electorate who originally said they would support centrist candidate François Bayrou has swung wholesale behind Macron, putting him just a point and a half behind Le Pen. Game on.

Paul Smith is an Associate Professor in French and Francophone Studies at the University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.