Macron and Le Pen trade blows and lean left as French race heats up

PARIS – The French presidential election entered an intense new phase on Tuesday as President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate trying to unseat him, exchanged barbs from afar and rubbed shoulders with voters in the hope of broadening their appeal, especially on the left.

Mr Macron, who spent the day in eastern France, and Ms Le Pen, who was campaigning in Normandy, are vying for the second round of the election, a rematch of their 2017 face-off to be held in April. 24.

In Sunday’s first round of voting, both attracted a larger share of voters than five years ago – Mr Macron with 27.85% of the vote, up from 24.01 in 2017, and Ms Le Pen , of the National Rally party. , with 23.15 percent. This is the highest proportion ever obtained by a far-right candidate in the first round of voting, and almost 2 percentage points more than in 2017.

The latest polls predict a very close second round, and place Mr. Macron only slightly ahead.

With less than two weeks to go, Mr Macron picked up the pace, seeking to dispel criticism that his campaign before the first round was unfocused and that he seemed distracted by his diplomatic efforts to end the war. in Ukraine.

In Mulhouse, a town in the Alsace region, Mr Macron navigated the crowds to shake hands with those who supported him and debate those who did not support him, many of whom sharply questioned him on issues such as as purchasing power, social benefits and hospital financing.

“I’m on the ground,” Mr Macron ostensibly told a scrum of TV reporters, pointing out that for the past two days he had chosen to meet voters in cities that did not vote for him.

He sought to portray Madame Le Pen as unfit to govern.

Ms Le Pen, for example, says she has no intention of leaving the European Union – but many of her promised policies would flout its rules. Mr Macron dismissed his assurances as “carabistouilles”, an old-fashioned term that roughly translates to “patter” or “nonsense”.

“The election is also a referendum on Europe,” Macron said later at a public meeting in Strasbourg, where supporters waved French and European Union flags in the shadow of the imposing cathedral in the city.

Roland Lescure, a member of the lower house of the French parliament for Mr Macron’s party, La République en Marche, said the campaign now aimed to ensure that Mr Macron was in direct contact with voters as much as possible.

“The method is contact,” said Mr. Lescure, warning that there is a real risk that Mrs. Le Pen will be elected. “We must campaign at full speed and to the end.”

Mr. Macron’s stature as a leader who has been at the helm throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine is not enough to secure him a new term, nor is it enough to berate voters over the threat from the far right, Mr. Lescure said. .

“It’s not the devil versus the angel,” he said. “These are fundamentally opposed social models. We have to show what Marine Le Pen’s platform would bring to France.

On Tuesday, Mr Macron was backed by Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing French president from 2007 to 2012. Ms Le Pen’s campaign unveiled an official poster recalling the official presidential portrait of Mr. Macron. That of Ms. Le Pen has the slogan: “For all French people”.

After the collapse of the traditional parties of left and right in France on Sunday, much of the energy of the candidates is now devoted to wooing voters who abstained in the first round or chose Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the man radical and veteran left politician who came in a solid third place, with 21.95% of the vote.

For Ms. Le Pen, that means pushing economic proposals like lowering the sales tax on basic necessities, but also keeping Eric Zemmour, another far-right politician, at bay.

Mr Zemmour, a pundit who shook up French politics with his presidential bid, came in fourth on Sunday, and polls suggest more than 80% of those who chose him in the first round intend to vote for Mrs Le Pen in the second. This gives her little incentive to court them openly as she tries to reinvent herself in the eyes of mainstream voters.

On Tuesday, Ms Le Pen categorically rejected the possibility of making Mr Zemmour one of her ministers if she wins, telling France Inter radio that “he doesn’t want it and neither do I”.

For Mr. Macron, attracting Mr. Mélenchon’s voters means toning down particularly taboo proposals on the left, in particular his plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65, necessary according to him to continue to finance the French public pension system.

On Monday, he insisted he would gradually push back the retirement age by four months a year from 2023, but he said he was open to discussing a relaxation of the plan in its later phases, although that how and to what extent is still unclear. . During his first term, Mr Macron’s retirement proposals were sidetracked by strikes and mass protests.

Ms Le Pen, speaking at a press conference in Vernon, a town in Normandy where she also mingled with crowds, on Tuesday dismissed Mr Macron’s concession as a weak attempt to lure voters of the left and called his platform “social carnage”.

She detailed several proposals which she hopes will attract voters favorable to Mr. Mélenchon, such as the creation of a mechanism for referendums proposed by popular initiative, or the introduction of proportional representation in Parliament.

“I intend to be a president who gives the people back their voice,” she said.

Mr Mélenchon was particularly popular with urban voters, coming out on top in cities including Lille, Marseille, Montpellier and Nantes, and he scored highly with French youth. A study by polling institutes Ipsos and Sopra Steria revealed that more than 30% of people aged 35 and under voted for him, more than for any other candidate.

Marie Montagne, 21, and Ellina Abdellaoui, 22, both English literature students standing outside the Sorbonne University in Paris, said Mr Mélenchon had not necessarily been their first choice – online quizzes suggested to Ms. Abdellaoui that she was most compatible with Philippe Poutou, a fringe anti-capitalist candidate.

But Mr. Mélenchon’s left-wing environmentalist platform was still appealing, they said, and he appeared to be the best-positioned leftist candidate to reach the second round. Now, however, the two students said they faced a stark choice.

“I hesitate between abstaining and Macron,” said Ms. Abdellaoui. “I can’t vote for Le Pen.”

Ms Montagne said she would vote for the incumbent “because I don’t want the slightest chance of the far right going through”.

“But I won’t vote for him because I like it,” she added.

Adele Shoemaker contributed report.

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