Over the last few months it looked like immigration would dominate the French presidential election in April. The emergence of hard-right independent Éric Zemmour put the squeeze on Marine Le Pen's attempt to "detoxify" her Rassemblement National party. Zemmour's challenge to her leadership on the right saw others, such as Valérie Pécresse of the centre-right Les Républicains, swerve cynically to the right. Even former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, in a brief campaign for the party's nomination, called for a freeze on immigration.
But that was largely a sideshow. A recent poll by Ipsos showed a majority of voters otherwise preoccupied by the cost of living, followed by healthcare and the environment.
Emmanuel Macron's long-expected declaration last week, just hours before the official deadline, came in the low-key form of a Letter to the French People, almost an afterthought between rounds of energetic Ukraine-linked diplomacy. "The challenge," he said in a swipe at the rest of the field, "is to build a France for our children, not to rehash the France of our childhood." Macron the moderniser reprised his successful 2017 role in enjoining the French to work harder. "There is no independence without economic power," he declared.
But the president’s foreign diplomacy has already pushed aside other election issues and is likely to help his campaign for a second term. For Macron, the focus on Moscow has the added advantage of reminding voters that Le Pen, Zemmour, and the hard-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon all have recent pro-Putin form.
Polls show Macron with a comfortable lead at 28 per cent in the first round, up from 25 per cent last month. Le Pen trails him with 17 per cent, Pécresse at 14 per cent, and Zemmour at 12 per cent. Mélenchon is the only candidate of the left achieving double digits.
On those numbers, it would be a repeat of the 2017 second round run-off, Macron versus Le Pen, with the centre and left swallowing hard to back the president as their least worst option.