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Emmanuel Macron Goes Low-Key, Finally Declaring Bid for Re-election

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron declared his candidacy for a second five-year term in the presidential election next month, formalizing his decision with a low-key letter in several newspapers that exhorted the French to let him guide “this beautiful and collective adventure that is called France.”

The serene tone of the letter, appearing just a day before the deadline for candidates and 38 days before the first round of the election, reflected the growing confidence of a leader whose stature has grown in several ways since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine.

But with a short letter that provided few details on his plans for the country, even as it made clear that the war in Ukraine would not allow him “to run the kind of campaign I would have wished,” Mr. Macron, a centrist, risked being seen as floating heedlessly above the fray on his diplomatic mission to save Europe.

“If the gravity of the international situation demands a spirit of responsibility and a dignified opposition, the French people cannot be deprived of a true democratic debate,” Valérie Pécresse, the center-right candidate for the Republicans, declared. “Emmanuel Macron must be held accountable.”

The fact is, however, that war in Europe has pushed everything aside, even this election, to the great frustration of Mr. Macron’s opponents. “It’s been months now that the President Macron has been at the service of the candidate Macron,” said Anne Hidalgo, the socialist candidate and mayor of Paris whose campaign has never gained any traction.

It has been clear for many months that Mr. Macron was going to run — he told Le Parisien, a daily, in January that “there is no false suspense. I want it.” But he judged that allowing his opponents to dangle while refusing to engage them would play in his favor, especially if he was engaged in matters of war and peace.

Although Mr. Macron’s frenetic diplomacy and repeated conversations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin — he spoke to him again today for 90 minutes — failed to prevent a war, he has been praised more for having tried than he has been criticized for having an exaggerated or naïve faith in his powers of persuasion. If anything, it has added to his stature.

Polls show Mr. Macron, 44, with a comfortable lead over his opponents, gaining 28 percent of the vote in the first round of the election on April 10, up from 25 percent last month. Marine Le Pen, the perennial far-right candidate, trails him with 17 percent, Ms. Pécresse at 14 percent, and Éric Zemmour, the upstart anti-immigrant nationalist, at 12 percent.

No candidate on the splintered left of the political spectrum appears to have a serious chance of reaching the second round on April 24. The two leaders in the first round face each other in the runoff.

The president’s one clear admonition to the French was that they must work harder. “There is no independence without economic power,” he said. “We must therefore work harder and lower the taxes that weigh on work and production.”

That sounded like early Macron, the bold reformer of 2017 who pushed to free up the state-centric and regulation-heavy French economy. Then the Yellow Vest movement disrupted his plans, and the Covid-19 crisis turned the free-market champion into a “spend-whatever-it-takes” apostle of state intervention.

It was unclear how the French, for whom an appropriate balance between work and leisure is an important feature of life, would respond to being told to work harder. The phrase seemed to contain a clear hint that Mr. Macron would return to his stalled attempt to reform the French pension system, which drew the longest transit strike in France’s modern history.

“After five years, Macron sends us a letter,” Fabien Roussel, the communist candidate whose lively campaign has drawn some attention, said in a post on Twitter. “But the rising bills come every month. So do stagnant wages and pensions.”

Whether economic arguments will gain any traction is, however, doubtful as long as the bloodshed in Ukraine continues.

The war was humiliating to Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Zemmour, Mr. Macron’s opponents on the far right, both of whom had expressed high praise of President Vladimir V. Putin and were forced into awkward retreats from their adulation. It had a similar effect on Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has also been sympathetic to Russia’s grievances and critical of NATO. He leads the hard left and is polling behind Mr. Zemmour.

Another way the war has favored Mr. Macron has been its galvanizing and unifying effect on Europe, delivering the “Europe-puissance,” or European power, of which he has been the leading supporter.

The 27-nation European Union, which rarely achieves unity, has come together on a wave of outrage at Mr. Putin’s brutality. It has provided over a half-billion dollars in aid to Ukraine to buy weapons and related supplies, so breaking a taboo. It has imposed sanctions aimed at causing the “collapse of the Russian economy,” in the words of the French economy minister. It has banned Russian civil aircraft from European airspace.

Above all, its most powerful member, Germany, broke with its self-imposed postwar constraints, prioritizing military spending and sending weapons to Ukraine. All this has allowed Mr. Macron to say that his vision of a Europe of real power and “strategic autonomy” was no pipe dream but a necessary and overdue adjustment.

In his letter Mr. Macron painted a positive picture of a France that has come through multiple crises with lower taxes, a 7.4 percent unemployment rate that is at its lowest level in 15 years, and a greener economy. “All this has allowed us to be credible and to convince our principal neighbors to start to build a Europe-power, able to defend itself and weigh on the course of history.”

The French president has long argued that the choice facing Europe was between muscular unity or marginal irrelevance. Until the war in Ukraine his pleas often fell on deaf ears. No longer, with a threatening Russia at the European Union’s doorstep.

Before the war, Mr. Macron spoke often of the need to integrate Russia in a new security architecture. It was never clear exactly what he meant. The low point of his diplomacy was probably a presidential statement on Feb. 21 that President Biden and President Putin had both accepted the principle of holding a summit “on security and strategic stability in Europe.” Three days later, the war began.

Today, after the conversation with Mr. Putin, a senior aide to Mr. Macron said the president believes ‘‘the worst is to come’’ and that Russia appeared intent on seizing all of Ukraine. Through his relationship with both the Russian president and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Mr. Macron is still trying to avert the worst.

After a faltering start in fighting Covid-19, Mr. Macron’s government said Thursday that France would scrap masks in all indoor places, other than public transport, on March 14. Vaccine passes would no longer be required.

Even the pandemic seems to have worked to the president’s advantage in the end. The announcement was clearly timed to portray the president as the man who delivered France from its clutches.

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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