The last article I read about champagne production, a few months back, portrayed an industry sunk in deepest despondency. The pandemic had seen to it that no-one was throwing parties, holding receptions or celebrating anything very much. Now, this past week, I read that sales in 2021 soared by a third to a record €5.5billion. The producers are as effervescent as their famous product.
It serves as a timely reminder that truth is only ever provisional. Especially, one is tempted to add, in France, but that would be unfair. The French media, it seems to me, can be a little credulous, but it is also generally honest. If it is less sceptical than its British counterparts, it is also less cynical. Generally, it deals with information as presented to it on the day, rather than selecting and bending facts to a pre-ordained agenda. There are exceptions, though mostly on the fringes.
But when it comes to French electoral politics, it is certainly a good idea to keep an open mind about received certainties. As I write, there is a broad consensus forming that Emmanuel Macron will be re-elected as President in April. Force me to lay my cards on the table, and I would say that this is probably right. But I am not in the least certain about it and neither, one suspects, is Macron… who, incidentally, has still formally to declare his candidacy.
Nor should he be. He owes his office, after all, to an election five years ago that radically departed its script. Everyone expected François Fillon of the centre-right Republicans to win, until he fell foul of the fraud squad. Macron, an uppity minister in François Hollande's Socialist Government, declared himself standard bearer for a new movement, La République en Marche (LRM), and duly gained power as a business-friendly social liberal with a nebulous modernising ambition reminiscent of David Cameron. Five years on, LRM still lacks a substantial membership base.
Macron owes his current modest poll lead (he's averaging 24-25%) more to who he isn't than who he is: the list of would-be candidates does not want for grotesques. Still, it is a flimsy basis on which to seek a second term.
In British politics, you have to go back to late-period Harold Wilson to find a leader who provokes such visceral dislike on right and left alike, with lukewarm acquiescence in between. The left hate Macron for scrapping the wealth tax, taking on the unions over workplace privileges and pensions, coercing people over Covid vaccination and longing to lead a more empowered EU. The right hate him for presiding over record immigration, failing to uphold traditional values, coercing people over Covid vaccinations and longing to lead a more empowered EU.
Meanwhile, with the election three months away, the script has already changed several times. Initially, the expectation was a repeat of 2017: a second ballot run-off between Macron and Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (formerly National Front), with respectable opinion uniting against the latter to elect the former. But then came the unexpected candidacy of Éric Zemmour, an anti-Islam blowhard who has made his reputation as a mouthy pundit on the sort of TV shows that attract viewers whose minds are a waste of good pie filling. Ring any bells?
At first, this looked like encouraging news for Macron, since it split the paleo-right vote with Le Pen. But Zemmour was last week convicted of racist hate speech after a rancid tirade against immigrant children, and fined €10,000. This will not deter his hardcore supporters any more than did his two previous convictions for similar unpleasantness, but it may make it harder for him to secure the 500 endorsements from elected local and national officials that he needs to get on the presidential ballot. Were all his votes to transfer to Le Pen, which they won't, she could in theory beat Macron.
The reason they won't is that there is now a plausible centre-right alternative in the Republicans' Valérie Pécresse, who has rapidly gained momentum since unexpectedly winning her party's nomination in a primary in December. She is now polling at around 16%, a similar figure to Le Pen and pre-conviction Zemmour.
This too was not in the script. Macron's victory five years ago was supposed to have broken the old duopoly between the Republicans and the Socialists, and ushered in a whole new politics. But both traditional parties rallied somewhat at last year's local elections, where the Greens also performed well. Which bring us to an obvious question: where in all this is the left?
The answer is, all over the place and nowhere at all. They ought to be strongly placed, since around a third of the electorate – enough in theory to put the second ballot within reach – identifies itself as being on the left. But the field is positively rammed with rival candidates who have no intention of making way for one another.
Anne Hidalgo, Paris's dynamic Mayor, is the official candidate of the Socialists, the party that gave France Presidents Mitterand and Hollande. But her campaign has failed miserably to gain traction, and latest polls put her at a desultory 2.5%, little better than the sundry splinter groups who always have no-hope candidates on offer at this stage of the election: barely ahead of the Communists' Fabien Roussel, and behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Soumise, the perennial Tony Benn of French politics; Yannick Jadot of the Greens; and even Christiane Taubira, a popular Guiana-born former Justice Minister, who has only just joined the field in an apparently unsatirical protest against the rabble.
Hidalgo has appealed for the left to unite behind a single candidate, and an unofficial online 'people's primary' will take place in coming days. But both Jadot and Mélenchon refuse to have anything to do with it. Barring the unforeseen, the election will eventually boil down to a choice between Macron, whom most these days would classify as right of centre, and one of two right-wingers: the Gaullist Pécresse or the rebranded extremist Le Pen. It is not hard to sympathise with the frustrations of left-wing voters.
So, in such circumstances, how would Macron do? The polls suggest a reasonably decisive win if his second-round opponent is Le Pen, and a much tighter margin if he is up against Pécresse.
Much will depend on two factors. The first is Macron's ability to prevent the election being about immigration, which the right have put front and central thus far. The second is Covid. Such popular assent as Macron commands derives from his perception as a safe-handed head of a competent administration, rather than fondness for the man or his politics. He was generally thought to have handled Covid astutely in the early days, stumbled in getting vaccination moving, but regained confidence with his drive to make vaccination a pre-condition of tolerable life. This strategy is loathed by a noisy minority, yet by last week 93% of adults had accepted at least one jag.
The government's approach is also two-fold: coercion is getting tougher, with negative tests now no longer valid as a substitute for vaccination certificates; while more of life is re-opened to the vaccinated. It worked well while infection rates were falling. Omicron, much more infectious but much less debilitating, changes the calculus. With other countries hastening to dump restrictions, it is not clear that the current line can hold: not all the way to 10 April.
Emmanuel Macron would be wise to keep the champagne on ice for now.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster