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French elections open as Marine Le Pen surges


PARIS — Finally, Emmanuel Macron comes forward. The French president this weekend entered a vast arena, shrouded in darkness and lit only by floodlights and glowsticks, in front of 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 akin to a rock concert. But Mr. Macron had come to sound the alarm.

Don’t think that “everything is decided, that everything will be fine,” he told the crowd, belatedly acknowledging that a presidential election that seemed almost certain to bring him back to power is suddenly wide open.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader making her third bid for power, has surged in the past two weeks as her patient focus on cost-of-living issues has resonated with millions of French people struggling to make ends meet after petrol prices have risen more than 35% over the past year.

The most recent poll by respected group Ifop-Fiducial showed Ms Le Pen won 21.5% of the vote in the first round of voting next Sunday, nearly double the vote share of the declining far-right upstart Éric Zemmour, with 11%, and closing the gap on Mr. Macron with 28%. The two main candidates present themselves in the second round on April 24.

More worrying for Mr Macron, the poll suggested he would edge out Ms Le Pen by just 53.5% to 46.5% in the second round. In the last presidential election, in 2017, Mr. Macron defeated Ms. Le Pen by 66.1% to 33.9% in the second round.

“It is an illusion that this election is won for Mr. Macron,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at Sciences Po. “With a high abstention rate, which is possible, and the level hatred towards the president among some, there could be a real surprise.The idea that Le Pen wins is not impossible.

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

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

Now, however, Mr. Zemmour’s campaign appears to be sinking into a whirlwind of bluster, as Ms. Le Pen, who said last year that “Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence “, is reaping the benefits of its makeover.

Mr. Zemmour may have finally done Mrs. Le Pen a favor. By overflowing her to the right, by becoming the unavoidable candidate for pure and simple xenophobia, he helped the candidate of the National Rally (ex-National Front) in her quest for “trivialization”, the attempt to gain legitimacy and to have a more “presidential” look. by becoming part of the French political current.

Mr Macron has fallen two or three percentage points in the polls over the past week, coming under increasing criticism for his refusal to debate other candidates and his general air of having more important issues in the air. spirit, like war and peace in Europe, than laborious machinations. of French democracy.

A cartoon on the front page of Le Monde daily last week showed Mr Macron holding his mobile phone and turning away from the crowd at a rally. “Vladimir, I just finished this chore and I’ll call you back,” he said.

With a colorless prime minister in Jean Castex – Mr Macron has tended to be wary of anyone who might encroach on his aura – there have been few other compelling political figures capable of running the presidential campaign in his absence. His centrist political party, La République en Marche, has failed to gain ground in municipal and regional politics. He is widely seen as merely a vessel for Mr Macron’s agenda.

His government’s extensive reliance on consultancies including McKinsey – involving spending of more than $1.1 billion, including some on the best ways to deal with Covid-19 – has also led to an outpouring of criticism. against Mr. Macron in recent days. A former banker, Mr Macron has often been called the “president of the rich” in a country with deeply ambivalent feelings about wealth and capitalism.

Yet Mr Macron has shown himself adept at occupying the full central spectrum of French politics by insisting that liberalizing the economy is compatible with maintaining, if not increasing, the role of the French state. in social protection. Center-left and center-right figures attended his rally on Saturday.

Over the past five years, he has shown both sides of his politics, first by simplifying the labyrinthine work code and stimulating a start-up company culture, then by embracing a “no matter what” policy. costs” to save people’s livelihoods during the coronavirus. pandemic. Its handling of this crisis, after a slow start, is widely considered successful.

“He absolutely rose to the task,” Mr. Tenzer said.

Yet much of the left feels betrayed by its policies, whether on the environment, the economy or the place of Islam in French society, and Mr Macron tried on Saturday to counter the opinion that his heart is on the right. Citing investments in education, promising to increase minimum pensions and give a tax-free bonus to workers this summer, Mr Macron proclaimed his concern for those whose wages are vanishing into “petrol, bills, rent”. .

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

The worrying scenario for Mr Macron is that Mr Zemmour’s vote would go to Ms Le Pen in a run-off, and she would be further bolstered by the broad swath of the left who feel betrayed or simply viscerally hostile towards the president, as well as by some centre-right voters for whom immigration is a central issue.

During the president’s first campaign foray into the provinces, a visit to Dijon last week where he spent time in a popular district, accompanied by the socialist mayor, Mr Macron offered this explanation of his sometimes checkered politics : “When you walk, you need two legs. One on the left, and one on the right. And you have to place yourself one after the other to move forward.

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

Ms. Le Pen has focused relentlessly on economic issues, promising to lower the price of gas and electricity, to tax the hiring of foreign employees to favor nationals, to preserve the 35-hour week and to maintain the retirement age at 62, while Mr. Macron wants to raise it to 65.

Mr Macron has warned that the French will have to “work harder”, a phrase dear to former centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, and therefore a way to lure Mr Sarkozy’s loyalists into the Macron camp.

If Ms Le Pen wanted to come across as a meek politician, she is by no means as transformed from the anti-immigrant bigot as she was as she likes to suggest. Its program includes a project to organize a referendum which would lead to a modification of the Constitution prohibiting policies leading to “the installation on the national territory of such a large number of foreigners that it would modify the composition and the identity of the French people”. .”

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

The working class vote is essentially split between Ms Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has also gained ground in recent polls as the electorate begins to focus on which vote would be the more effective in propelling a candidate to the second round. But at around 15%, Mr Mélenchon appears to still be well adrift of Ms Le Pen in the run-off race.

The French left has proved chronically divided to the point of being almost irrelevant politically for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The Socialist Party, whose candidate Francois Hollande won the 2012 elections and governed until in 2017, collapsed, with only 1.5% of the vote in the Ifop-Fiducial poll.

Although Ms Le Pen has tried to distance herself a little from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, whom she met in Moscow in 2017 and whose policy she had supported until the war in Ukraine, she remains allergic to radical measures towards Russia. A victory on his part would threaten European unity, alarm France’s allies from Washington to Warsaw and confront the European Union with its biggest crisis since Brexit.

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

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

Constant Meheut contributed report.

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