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French presidential campaign revs up after summer hiatus

As August comes to a close, France's presidential race is set to begin in earnest as President Emmanuel Macron seeks to fend off challengers – especially those on the right – and retain his place at the Elysee Palace in April elections.

(CN) — In France, they call it “la rentrée”the return to normal life after the carefree and hot days of August when much of the country, along with most of Europe, goes on vacation.

This September, besides work and school starting again, high-stakes politics resumes too as President Emmanuel Macron prepares to defend his government from an assault of rivals hoping to unseat him in eight months when France votes in what are seen as highly unpredictable presidential elections.

On Monday, Macron returned to the head of state's residency in Paris, the Elysee Palace, after three weeks of vacation at Fort de Bregancon, a Medieval fortress on the Mediterranean Sea and the official summer home for French presidents since the late 1960s.

His return to Paris kicks off the start of a difficult reelection campaign for Macron, a 43-year-old former investment banker who was seen as a neoliberal wunderkind not just for France but for Europe when he was elected in 2017.

But since his convincing defeat of far-right leader Marine Le Pen four years ago, Macron's presidency has been defined by bitter and often violent protests against his business-friendly agenda and he's scored a mixed record in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Still, despite difficult years at the helm, Macron remains the favorite to win, mostly due to divisions among his opponents on the right and on the left. Macron is a free-market social liberal who has taken on the anti-Islam and nationalist rhetoric of his right-wing challengers.

France's presidential election will take place in two acts. The first act will end on April 10 with a first open round of voting. The election will include a varied field of candidates from across the political spectrum.

Then on April 24 a runoff between the top two candidates will be held to determine the winner. A runoff could be avoided if someone picks up a majority in the first round, but that is considered nearly impossible.

Macron's biggest threat for now is from the right.

Polls show him neck-and-neck with Le Pen, who is attempting to lure traditional conservatives by appearing less strident while also holding onto her voting base, made up largely of poorer rural voters who see immigration from Islamic nations and social liberalism as threats to their way of life. But her rebranding as more moderate – for example, she has dropped her opposition to the euro currency – doesn't appear to have given her election hopes much of a boost.

Macron and Le Pen each have the support of about 24% of voters, polls show. But in a runoff, Macron is expected to beat Le Pen handily, polls suggest.

However, Macron's path to reelection is becoming complicated by the rise of Xavier Bertrand, a former insurance salesman ridiculed in the past as an uncouth provincial politician. He was even given the nickname “floc floc” in the French parliament for the sound his rubber-soled shoes made.

Bertrand has emerged as a serious challenger from the center-right since he easily won re-election as president of the Hauts-de-France region in northern France by beating allies of Le Pen and Macron.

He now sits in third place with about 16% of voters saying they favor him in the first round of voting. Surprisingly, should Bertrand make it into a runoff with Macron, polls suggest he could beat the incumbent.

Bertrand was a labor minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, a former French president who continues to wield a lot of influence over the Republicans, France's mainstream conservative party, despite his many legal problems and conviction for corruption.

Bertrand, though, is not a favorite among Sarkozy conservatives and he quit the party in 2017.

Still, he is seeking to be the face of the center-right against Macron and he could become aligned with those vying to be the Republican candidate. They include Michel Barnier, the European Union's negotiator during the Brexit negotiations; Valerie Pecresse, a former government spokeswoman who was recently reelected president of Ile-de-Paris, the region that includes Paris; and Laurent Wauquiez, a leading Republican member who was reelected as the head of the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region. Unless a leading Republican candidate emerges by late September, the contenders have agreed to pick a candidate in a party vote.

The competition on the right also could be shaped by whether the controversial far-right writer and television personality Eric Zemmour enters the presidential race. He is known for his incendiary rhetoric against Islam and immigrants. He could sap voters away from center-right candidates to the benefit of Le Pen, analysts say.

On the left, the picture is even more fractured.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, has the support of about 11% of voters.

The mainstream center-left Socialist Party is likely to be led by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is expected to announce her candidacy in September. But polls show her picking up only about 7% of votes in the first round. In Paris, she is best known for her efforts to ban cars from the city center and strong support for climate change policies.

Support for the Socialists collapsed following the presidency of Francois Hollande and the sudden rise of Macron. The party is looking to reinvent itself and regain its position as a major force in French politics. The Socialists will hold a party conference Sept. 18-19 where they are expected to coalesce behind a candidate.

France's Green party – the Europe Ecology-The Greens – also are scheduled to hold a party conference in September where they will pick a presidential candidate. The top contenders are Yannick Jadot, a European Parliament member and former Greenpeace activist, and Eric Piolle, the mayor of Grenoble.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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