French Election Opens Up as Marine Le Pen Surges

PARIS — Finally, Emmanuel Macron stepped forward. The French president entered a huge arena this weekend, plunged in darkness and lit only by spotlights and glow sticks, before a crowd of 30,000 supporters in a domed stadium in the Paris suburbs.

It was a highly choreographed appearance, his first campaign rally for an election now less than a week away, with something of the air of a rock concert. But Mr. Macron had come to sound the alarm.

Don’t think that “everything is decided, that everything is going to work out,” he told the crowd, a belated acknowledgment that a presidential election that seemed almost certain to return him to power is suddenly open.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader making her third bid for power, has risen in recent weeks as her patient approach to cost-of-living issues has resonated with the millions of French people struggling to reach End of the month. after a more than 35 percent increase in gasoline prices over the past year.

The most recent poll by the respected Ifop-Fiducial group showed Ms Le Pen garnering 21.5 percent of the vote in next Sunday’s first round of voting, nearly double the far-right upstart’s vote share. in decline Éric Zemmour, with 11 percent. and close the gap with Macron with 28 percent. The two main candidates go to a second round on April 24.

More worrying for Macron, the poll suggested he would lead Le Pen by just 53.5 per cent to 46.5 per cent in the second round. In the last presidential election, in 2017, Macron defeated Le Pen by 66.1% against 33.9% in the second round.

“It is an illusion that this election has been won by Mr Macron,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at Sciences Po university. “With high abstentionism, which is possible, and the level of hatred towards the president of some people, there can be a real surprise. The idea of ​​Le Pen winning is not impossible.”

Édouard Philippe, a former prime minister in the Macron government, warned last week that “of course Le Pen can win.”

This notion would have seemed ridiculous a month ago. Ms. Le Pen looked like an old man after trying and failing in 2012 and 2017. Mr. Zemmour, a glib anti-immigrant television pundit turned politician with more than a touch of Donald Trump about him, had overshadowed her to the right of the political spectrum by suggesting that Islam and France were incompatible.

Now, however, Zemmour’s campaign appears to be sinking into a whirlwind of bombast, as Le Pen, who said last year that “Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence,” reaps the benefits of her makeover.

Mr. Zemmour may have done Mrs. Le Pen a favor in the end. By overtaking her to the right, by becoming the favorite candidate for absolute xenophobia, he has helped the candidate of the Agrupación Nacional (formerly the National Front) in her quest for “banalization”, the attempt to gain legitimacy and appear more “presidential”. . ” by becoming part of the French political current.

Macron has fallen two or three percentage points in the polls over the past week, increasingly criticized for his refusal to debate other candidates and his general air of having bigger issues on his mind, such as war and peace in Europe, which the laborious machinations. of French democracy.

A front-page cartoon in Le Monde newspaper last week showed Macron grabbing his cell phone and walking away from the crowd at a rally. “Vladimir, I’m finishing this task and I’ll call you back,” he says.

With a colorless prime minister in Jean Castex (Mr Macron has tended to be wary of anyone who could affect his aura), there have been few other compelling political figures capable of running the president’s campaign in his absence. His centrist political party, La République en Marche, has not gained ground in municipal and regional politics. It is widely seen as a mere vessel for Macron’s agenda.

His government’s extensive use of consulting firms, including McKinsey, which involves spending more than $1.1 billion, some of it on the best ways to deal with covid-19, has also sparked a wave of criticism against Macron in recent days. Macron, a former banker, has often been attacked as “the president of the rich” in a country with deeply ambivalent sentiments about wealth and capitalism.

Still, Macron has proven adept at occupying the entire central spectrum of French politics by insisting that freeing up the economy is compatible with maintaining, and even increasing, the role of the French state in social protection. Leading figures from the center left and center right attended his rally on Saturday.

Over the course of the last five years, it has shown both sides of its policy, first simplifying the labyrinthine labor code and stimulating a start-up corporate culture, then adopting a “whatever it takes” policy to save the livelihood of people during coronavirus. pandemic. His handling of that crisis, after a slow start, is widely seen as successful.

“He absolutely proved himself up to the task,” Mr. Tenzer said.

Still, much of the left feels betrayed by his policies, whether on the environment, the economy or Islam’s place in French society, and Macron went to great lengths on Saturday to counter the view that his heart is in the right. Citing investments in education, promising to raise minimum pensions and give employees a tax-free bonus this summer, Macron proclaimed his concern for those whose wages vanish into “petrol, bills, rent.”

It felt like a moment of recovery after Macron felt his image as a statesman and peacemaker would be enough to secure him a second term. Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice, said of Macron that “his choice of him to remain head of state until the end prevented him from becoming a real candidate.”

The worrying scenario for Macron is that Zemmour’s vote would go to Le Pen in a second round, and that she would be reinforced by the broad section of the left that feels betrayed or simply viscerally hostile towards the president, as well as by some center-right voters for whom immigration is a central issue.

In the president’s first campaign foray into the provinces, a visit to Dijon last week where he spent time in a working-class area, accompanied by the socialist mayor, Macron offered this explanation of his sometimes hesitant policies: “When you walk , you need two legs. One on the left and one on the right. And you have to place one after another to be able to advance.”

It was the kind of clever phrase that infuriates Macron’s opponents, leaving them unsure from which angle to attack him.

Ms Le Pen has focused tirelessly on economic issues, promising to cut gas and electricity prices, tax the hiring of foreign employees to favor nationals, preserve the 35-hour week and keep the retirement age at 62. , while Macron wants to increase it to 65.

Macron warned that the French will have to “work harder”, a phrase beloved by center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and thus a means of drawing loyal Sarkozy supporters into Macron’s camp.

If Ms. Le Pen has wanted to appear like a soft-spoken politician, she has by no means transformed from the anti-immigrant fanatic she likes to suggest. Her program includes a plan to hold a referendum that would lead to a change in the Constitution that would prohibit policies that lead to “the installation on national territory of such a large number of foreigners that it would change the composition and identity of the French people.” .”

“France, land of immigration, is finished,” he said in February. He also said that the French must not allow their country “to be buried under the veil of multiculturalism.” In September 2021 he declared: “French criminals in prison, foreigners on a plane!”

The working class vote is essentially split between Ms Le Pen and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has also been gaining ground in recent polls as the electorate begins to zero in on which vote would be more effective. to promote a candidate to the second round. But at around 15 per cent, Mélenchon still appears to be a long way from Le Pen in the race for the second lap.

The French left has proven chronically divided to the point of near political irrelevance for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The Socialist Party, whose candidate François Hollande won the 2012 election and governed until 2017, has collapsed, with only 1.5 percent of the vote in the Ifop-Fiducial poll.

Although Ms. Le Pen has tried to distance herself somewhat from Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin, whom she met in Moscow in 2017, and whose policies she had endorsed until the war in Ukraine, she remains allergic to hardline moves towards Russia. A victory by her would threaten European unity, alarm French allies from Washington to Warsaw and confront the European Union with its biggest crisis since Brexit.

“Do we want to die?” she asked in a recent television debate, when asked if France should cut oil and gas imports from Russia. “Economically, we would die!”

He added: “We have to think about our people.”

constant meheut contributed report.

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