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French President Emmanuel Macron, who was barely campaigning ahead of the first round of voting, hit the campaign track early Monday morning after Sunday’s results showed he led his rival Marine Le Pen by just five percentage points with 27.6% of the vote. Macron has two weeks to persuade the French to give him another term instead of betting on the country’s future on what many say is Le Pen’s extremist vision.
Macron’s first stop was the northern city of Denain, which is distinguished by being the poorest municipality in France. Television footage showed the president in shirt sleeves talking and meeting with people in this ruined former coal mining region of France.
“Do not forget about us in down and out of France,” a man begged Macron. Denain voted for Le Pen 41% in the first round, compared to 17% for Macron.
Macron and Le Pen faced each other in the showdown five years ago, and Macron beat her well, attracting 66% of the vote. But much has changed since 2017.
While Macron is still predicted to win in the second round, the margin is much smaller, and analysts say Marine Le Pen has a real chance this time around. There are several reasons for this. One is that French voters have generally moved to the right.
Le Pen has expanded its support base and more voters are choosing the extremes. Mainstream left and right have almost disappeared. The parties of Charles DeGaulle and Francois Mitterrand reached almost 5% this time.
More than 50% of the votes in last weekend’s first round went to extremists. Some analysts say there are now three voting blocs: centered, far left, and far right. Others say the right-left divide has disappeared and been replaced by a new paradigm, globalist vs sovereign.
On a personal level, Le Pen has softened his image and detoxified his party to appear more mainstream. It worked in part because another, even longer right-wing candidate, Eric Zemmour, has been the one who has stirred up the anti-immigrant sentiment, while Le Pen has stuck to bread-and-butter economic issues such as purchasing power. It paid off, said 26-year-old supporter David, who prefers not to disclose his last name.
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“She has campaigned on the spot, gone to markets, met people all over France,” he said. “That’s why she got so many votes in the first round. And that’s why she wins in two weeks.”
Macron is no longer the political marvel of five years ago. On the contrary, there is a deep resentment over him in many parts of the country. Those on the left who voted for him feel betrayed, and he is generally perceived as an arrogant, elitist whose policies favor the rich. “Anybody but Macron” has become a mantra for some.
Le Pen can expect to pick up the far-right candidate Zemmour’s voters; he finished the race in fourth place with 7% of the vote. Macron, meanwhile, has no deep voter well to pick up.
The far-left brand Jean Luc Melenchon, who came in third just after Le Pen, told his supporters that “not a single vote can go to Madame Le Pen.” Yet he did not support Macron. Both Macron and Le Pen are now vying for their constituents.
It is not far off to imagine that Melenchon’s voters potentially support Le Pen. The French far left and far right have similar socio-economic platforms – support for the working class and hatred of a globalized capitalist system, they say, benefits elites and corporations.
Pollster Brice Teinturier told France 2 News that the battle between Macron and Le Pen is in fact about a battle between two different visions of France.
“We have France for those who are doing well, they are convinced they have high salaries and they are voting massively for Macron,” he said. “And the other low-wage France worries about its future. And they can hardly cope. They vote Le Pen.”
Martin Quencez, deputy director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, said the French voters’ election on April 24 will have profound consequences in France and on the world stage.
“The vision – especially in foreign policy – that Marine Le Pen promotes is extremely different from the one that Emmanuel Macron supports,” he said.
Quencez said that although Le Pen tried to normalize her image and cut some of the most controversial slogans from her program, the details of her platform have not actually changed that much. “It is still about withdrawing from NATO’s military command and reconsidering France’s partnership with the EU, with the United States and with Russia.”
Macron will hammer at that message over the next two weeks: how a vote on Le Pen will be a vote to take France in a dangerous new direction. A Macron campaign ad shows a half Le Pen half (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s face with a quote from Le Pen speaking to a journalist dated March 31. “Can Putin become an ally of the West again?” asked the journalist.
“Of course,” Le Pen said.