French election race wide open as far-right Le Pen closes in on Macron after softening his image

They are old car enthusiasts and struggling students. They are pensioners living in the countryside, cheerful multilingual accountants who have lived abroad, and even frustrated and disadvantaged members of the country’s Muslim minority.

What binds them is the intention to vote for Marine Le Pen, the far-right French candidate who seems to have managed to smooth out the harsher contours of her image as a proto-fascist fanatic and has come within reach of hand of the presidency.

“Voting Marine Le Pen in 2022 has nothing to do with racism or fascism,” said Nathan Gazzoli, a 19-year-old student in Toulouse and a first-time voter. “It’s a vote for the people.”

While most polls show incumbent President Emmanuel Macron narrowly winning the vote, a stunning survey by Atlas Politico on Thursday showed that Ms Le Pen, heir to the far-right National Front party founded by her father Jean- Marie Le Pen, edged Mr Macron by 50.5% to 49.5% in a hypothetical second-round match.

The French head to polling stations on Sunday for the first round of elections, which come at a particularly crucial moment in European history, as Russia wages war on Ukraine and the world emerges from a pandemic two years.

Ms Pen, who has been campaigning aggressively across France and even abroad for months, first raised doubts when she diverted her rhetoric from immigration and cultural issues, which were at the heart of the political platform of his father, and focused on economic issues such as inflation, purchasing power and retirement age.

Her stump speeches have become more Jeremy Corbyn than Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister whom she considers a close ally.

“If the question of purchasing power is strangling you today, it is because previous politicians have impoverished you, collapsed public accounts and even put our children in debt for a long time,” said Ms Le Pen. to a crowd in the southern city of Perpignan. the week.

This change is now warranted, as his party, the National Rally, is poised to perform better than it has ever done in its 50-year history.

“I believe in France,” she said in an interview this week with The European Curator. “I dedicate every second of my life to the happiness of the French people, who are the absolute priority in all my fights.”

Marine Le Pen poses for a photo during a campaign visit to a market in Dunkirk, northern France, March 12, 2022

(AFP via Getty Images)

Although Ms Pen is still behind Mr Macron in all but one poll, she has made significant progress in recent weeks, while the French are notoriously fickle when it comes to their voting intentions.

In polls conducted just a week before the election, a third of voters said they could still change their voting intention and get rid of their favorite candidate. Both the left and right of the political spectrum are crowded, while Mr Macron is the undisputed champion of the centrists.

“What matters to me is to go and convince people who are tempted by extremes that extremes do not provide the right answer, that people’s fears are sometimes legitimate but that the real answer is different and that it can sometimes take time,” Macron said. said in a radio interview earlier this week.

Mr Macron has seen his lead in the polls wane since March, after falling out of favor due to Tory proposals such as raising the retirement age to 65, cutting inheritance taxes and tightening access to social benefits.

The president has also drawn criticism from some voters who believe he has focused more on Ukrainian diplomacy than on domestic affairs. Mr Macron said on Friday he regretted entering the presidential race late, saying he had done so because of Vladimir Putin’s war.

Macron poses before a live interview on the set of French private radio RTL in Neuilly-sur-Seine, April 8, 2022

(AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, turnout on Sunday is expected to be low, with a poll suggesting 30% of voters could abstain.

But that could change as alarm bells ring over the rising candidacy of Ms Le Pen, whose name and that of her father are still causing shock and derision in some quarters in France. A decisive second round between the two big winners of Sunday’s election is scheduled for April 24.

Much will depend on young voters and their presence on Sunday. In last year’s regional elections, no less than 87% of them chose not to vote. And while presidential elections generally generate more excitement, some studies predict that up to half of young voters may abstain.

“More than half of my class is not planning to vote this Sunday,” Gazzoli said. “It hurts me because I consider voting not just a right but also a duty. We are being asked to help decide our future.

Until a few weeks ago, Mr Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker, appeared to be navigating an easy second-round victory.

But he found himself embroiled in a disastrous scandal involving hundreds of millions of euros paid to consultancies to advise the state on the Covid crisis. Mr Macron has defended his government, but the saga has drawn criticism from right and left, reinforcing the idea that he is an out-of-touch elitist more focused on the interests of the super-rich than ordinary French people.

“He stigmatizes and he despises the unions by saying that in the classrooms there are teachers who do the ‘minimum union’, against teachers who do more,” said Yannick Jadot, the Green Party candidate, on Thursday. according to The world. “I find it shameful.”

The failure of left-wing contenders to unite under a single candidate has benefited both Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen.

A man walks past presidential campaign posters of Macron and Le Pen in Anglet, southwestern France, April 8, 2022

(AP)

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far left La France Insoumise, has also jumped in the polls in recent weeks, but not enough to reach the second round. He also campaigned on economic issues and sought to address voters’ day-to-day concerns, but was pilloried by candidates from the Socialist, Green and Communist parties.

Mr Gazzoli said many of his peers lean to the left and regularly call him a fascist and a racist because he is a Le Pen supporter. He is not a fan of far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, who posed a serious threat to Le Pen earlier in the campaign but has recently fallen in the polls.

“Zemmour is talking about a big game on security and immigration, but if you want to run the country, that’s not enough,” Gazzoli said.

“Marine Le Pen was very smart in talking about both safety and cost of living,” he said. The Independent. “She spent a lot of time talking to older people who are struggling to make ends meet.”

A victory for Ms Le Pen, or less likely Mr Melenchon, would have far-reaching geopolitical implications for a country that is the EU’s second-largest economy. Even if the French parliament could contain their ambitions. Ms Le Pen owes millions of euros to banks run by Kremlin-linked oligarchs and has expressed anti-European Union and anti-NATO comments.

Mr. Melenchon, on the other hand, “is basically so anti-American, he supported all the dictatorships that were anti-American,” Mr. Jadot said.

Mr. Gazzoli predicted that far-right voters and left-wing supporters would rally behind Ms. Le Pen in the second round.

“What we have in common with the left is that we all agree that five more years of Macron would be a disaster,” he said. “(Ms Le Pen) has never been so close to victory.”

Gert Van Langendonck contributed to this report

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