One of the strangest electoral campaigns in recent history in France ended at midnight on Friday with a solid lead in the polls for the incumbent president, the centrist Emmanuel Macron, over the far-right Marine Le Pen. Macron and Le Pen appealed in the last hours to the rejection of the rival and the fear that he governs the country. The rejection of Le Pen, because he is ultra or inexperienced, and the rejection of Macron, because he is arrogant and elitist, are the engines of this Sunday’s election.
Macron declared on the France Inter channel: “The extreme right lives on fear and anger [de los franceses] to turn them into resentment and say that the answer is a project that excludes a part of society”.
They were the last hours of a campaign that started in March at half throttle. Macron delayed announcing his candidacy after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war triggered his vote expectations, but his advantage was immediately reduced. Meanwhile, Le Pen advanced speaking not of the usual topics of the extreme right, such as immigration, but of purchasing power: the pocket of the ordinary French.
Le Pen, in his northern fief of the Pas-de-Calais, put his finger on the sore that hurts Macron the most: the almost visceral revulsion that he arouses in a part of the population that sees in him someone who looks at them above the shoulder and is unable to understand them.
“That Emmanuel Macron despises me, I don’t care,” Le Pen said. “But that he despises the French, that he brutalizes them, that he treats them as he has treated them, with contempt, with arrogance, this is inadmissible.” And he summed up what, in his opinion, is at stake on Sunday as follows: “Either Macron or France.”
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Unless all the polls are wrong at the same time and by considerable margins, the candidate of the extreme right has a difficult time becoming the first female president of the Republic. The average made by HuffPost gives 56.3% of the vote to Macron and 43.7% to Le Pen.
The distance, in any case, will be less than five years ago, when Macron defeated Le Pen with 66% of votes compared to 34%. And much lower than the presidential elections of 2002, when for the first time a candidate from the extreme right qualified for the second round. The candidate was Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine, and he only got 18% against 82% of the then president, Jacques Chirac. Since then, no incumbent president has been re-elected.
Macron is now seeking re-election after his first five-year term. And it is the third time that the candidate of the extreme right appears. Both qualified for the second round after being the most voted among the 12 candidates in the first, on April 10. Since that day, Macron has continued to widen the gap to Le Pen in the polls for April 24.
“Emmanuel Macron is the favorite, more clearly than before the first round,” says Bernard Sananes, director of the Elabe institute, in his office on the outskirts of Paris. On the night of the first round, the Elabe polls reflected a victory for the president against Le Pen by 52% to 48%. In the middle of this week, the advantage was greater: 54.5% to 45.5%. Sananes warns: “The outcome is not written.”
The high abstention and the undecided fuel uncertainty. Another factor is the school holidays, which in France coincide with this date. “They can have an impact on mobilization,” says Sananes.
The polls favorable to the president threaten to demobilize part of the 7.7 million French people who in the first round voted for the candidate of the populist left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Some voters are against Macron’s management in the Elysee Palace, but even more hostile to Le Pen. They would only vote for the president if Macron’s victory is really in jeopardy. On the other hand, if it is taken for granted, they are more likely to stay at home or vote blank.
The only debate between Macron and Le Pen, on Wednesday, did not change the trends. The president dominated the arguments and dismantled the inconsistencies of his rival. But this one held up better than in the previous debate, in 2017. And she took another step in the process that began a decade ago: from being the leader of a party that was associated with anti-Semitism and xenophobia, to a normal and close candidate for many compatriots.
“Emmanuel Macron scored points, but he didn’t kill the game like in 2017, and Marine Le Pen erased her poor performance of 2017, but she didn’t turn the situation around,” analyzes Sanane. “The president prevailed in the presidential character; Le Pen on the determination to change things. But in her respective negative points, little changes: he continues to be judged as someone arrogant, and she continues to disturb ”.
In the first round on April 10, Macron was the most voted candidate with 27.8% of the vote, followed by Le Pen with 23.1%. On the same night the campaign was transformed. Macron, who had barely jumped into the ring, launched himself to tour France and take mass baths in towns and cities and discuss hours and hours with citizens, often irritated by his policies and his personality.
The president modified his message. Before the first round, he had emphasized messages that he could appeal to moderate conservatives, such as the promise to raise the retirement age to 65. After April 10, he turned to the left in search of the Mélenchonistas’ votes. He agreed to water down his proposal to reform pensions. He vigorously defended the right of Muslim women to wear a veil in the street. He said that it was possible to wear a veil and be a feminist at the same time, and he endorsed the idea of “ecological planning” promoted by Mélenchon.
Le Pen’s campaign, between the first and second rounds, has been more erratic. Before April 10, she had managed to set herself up as the purchasing power candidate. And she had prevented her focus from falling on her rupturist program, which includes historical claims of the extreme right.
All this ended on April 10. Since then, and for the first time in months, she has had to explain the most radical aspects of the program. For the first time in time, voters have been reminded of the ideological core: the extreme right. And she has oscillated between the message that worked so well for her about purchasing power, and the appeals to the delivered public of her rallies to fight “the caste” on behalf of the “people” and to unite the vote rejecting Macron.
“Suddenly, Marine Le Pen is much more exposed,” explains Sananes. “As a second round draws closer, the issue of credibility and the ability to embody the presidential function increasingly shapes public opinion. Who looks better in the presidential habit? And there is a clear advantage here for the outgoing president”, she concludes.
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