French presidential election: Macron facing a serious challenge from Le Pen


PARIS — France is voting in the first round of a presidential election that polls suggest could be uncomfortably close for President Emmanuel Macron. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Macron, a centrist candidate for a second five-year term, faces a serious challenge from far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with the two candidates separated by just 3 percentage points in a poll average measuring the intentions of voters in the first round.
  • Macron beat Le Pen by a decisive margin in the last presidential election in 2017, but the far-right leader has since sought to tone down her image.
  • The order of arrival in the first round could depend on voter turnout. At noon, turnout was 3 percentage points lower than it was at the same time five years ago.

Macron had been well ahead in the field of 12 official candidates, but a belated surge of support for far-right leader Marine Le Pen has sown uncertainty over whether the centrist politician elected France’s youngest president in 2017 can run for a second term.

Only three candidates – Macron, Le Pen and far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon – have a realistic chance of qualifying for the deciding second round on April 24, when the top two candidates face off.

The latest polling averages, surveys conducted before this weekend, showed that 26% of voters intend to choose Macron in the first round, 23% Le Pen and 17% Mélenchon, according to NSPPolls, a platform that compiles the French electoral polls. All other candidates voted in single digits.

Unless there is a major error in the polls, Macron should be able to reach the second round. But he is expected to face a bigger challenge than when he beat Le Pen by more than 30 percentage points in the 2017 presidential runoff. Polls predict he won’t win. now only by a small margin of 4 to 6 percentage points – a sign of dissatisfaction with his presidency and concern over the rising cost of living.

Explainer: What you need to know about the 2022 French presidential election

Macron assumed a high international role during the war in Ukraine, serving as an interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir Putin and spokesperson for the European Union and NATO. The Russian invasion has also shaken Europe’s sense of security. And so, as a wartime leader, Macron first saw an increase in public support.

The first round of the French presidential elections is scheduled for April 10. The Post’s Rick Noack explains the main issues and the main candidates. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack, Jayne Orenstein, Jackie Lay, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

But that rally has evaporated in the past two weeks – usually the most intense period of France’s relatively short campaign season.

At the same time, support for Le Pen grew rapidly as she won over voters who had considered her main far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour.

Six weeks before the election, it looked like she wouldn’t even collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. But she campaigned hard, presenting herself as a more moderate figure than in the past. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she has distanced herself from Putin and changed her hardline stance on immigration to make an exception for Ukrainian refugees.

Macron, as usual, voted on Sunday in the seaside resort of Le Touquet. Le Pen lined up to vote in Hénin-Beaumont, a far-right bastion and former mining town in a region particularly affected by deindustrialization and unemployment.

Macron has held just one major campaign rally, engaged in no direct debates with his competitors, and delivered none of the grand vision speeches he is known for.

While it is not uncommon for French incumbents to avoid the election campaign, this strategy may not have helped his reputation in the eyes of people who see him as an elitist politician out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

War in Ukraine boosted Macron, but far-right surges ahead of French vote

“When you are a candidate who decides to run a short campaign, you have to have a perfect campaign. You have to be clear, you have to be strong and have a good platform,” said Vincent Tiberj, researcher at Sciences Po Bordeaux.

At a polling station in Paray-Vieille-Poste, a suburb south of Paris, criticism that Macron’s campaign lacked sincerity was echoed by Sabrina Famibelle, 38, who voted for Le Pen on Sunday.

“Maybe I could have changed my mind… and said at the end, well, why not Emmanuel Macron?” said Famibelle, whose parents are both foreigners. “But from his point of view, we don’t deserve his attention or to be convinced.”

“I didn’t understand why he refused to debate with the other candidates. I felt like it wasn’t right,” she said.

Macron has also alienated left-leaning voters who opposed his shift to the right on issues such as national security and who were disappointed in his efforts to tackle climate change.

Throughout the campaign, Le Pen largely avoided emphasizing his most controversial proposals and instead focused on echoing popular concerns about the economy and rising inflation. But in substance, many of Le Pen’s positions are as radical as they were five years ago. Last week, she pledged to impose fines on Muslims who wear headscarves in public.

Zemmour’s campaign played into Le Pen’s hands. Zemmour is a far-right provocateur sometimes compared to former President Donald Trump and has been repeatedly convicted of inciting racial hatred.

“He’s so disrespectful,” Tiberj said, that Le Pen seems relatively moderate in the eyes of voters. “But she didn’t move,” he said.

Far-right candidate Éric Zemmour found guilty of inciting racial hatred

A big unknown in Sunday’s vote is abstention, which could reach a record high, analysts say, and complicate forecasts from polling institutes. By noon, only around 25.5% had voted, compared to around 28.5% at the same time five years ago.

In the past, high abstention rates have often been more pronounced among far-right voters, and Le Pen’s National Rally party performed below expectations in last year’s regional elections. .

But the dynamics of French presidential elections are often also driven by frustrations with the incumbent, and Le Pen has sought to channel public anger at Macron’s policies into a historic vote share for the far right.

Experts have also warned that support for far-left candidate Mélenchon could be higher than indicated by polls, largely because left-leaning voters may spontaneously drop out of their candidates, many of whom vote in single digits, and decide to gather around him.

French law prohibits campaigning after midnight on Friday, and candidates worked until the very last moment to get their supporters to vote.

“On Sunday, France will speak to the world. Vote!” Mélenchon posted on Twitter with a few minutes to spare.

Le Pen, who is running for the French presidency for the third time, wrote that she is “ready to lead the country.”

Macron and his allies have tried in recent days to impress on their supporters that they should not be too confident of his victory and that Le Pen’s efforts to mask his radical ideas could still succeed at the polls.

“Don’t believe the commentators or the opinion polls who say it’s impossible, unthinkable,” Macron warned last weekend, before his lead in the polls fell from 6 to 3 percentage points.

“His program will create massive unemployment. … She lies to people,” Macron told the Parisian newspaper. In the same interview, he accused her of pursuing a “racist manifesto” and said Le Pen’s plans would effectively mean France would have to leave the EU.

But Macron has struggled to build the same momentum against Le Pen as he did in 2017.

“It surprised me, because it’s not very logical,” said Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polls at Kantar Public, a data analysis company.

A relatively high number of French people, “43%, said they trusted Emmanuel Macron as president to deal with the main issues”, he said, adding that Le Pen’s past closeness to Putin should have theory also harm his position and help Macron.

Rivière cited weakening resistance to the idea of ​​a Le Pen presidency within parts of the electorate and a “very deep-rooted tradition of French voters firing the incumbent whenever we get the chance.” opportunity” as potential reasons for Macron’s surprisingly weak position in the polls.

At a polling station near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday, Eric Tardy, 57, disagreed with Macron’s critics. He voted for the incumbent because of his “satisfactory record” and said he hoped Macron would continue to pursue the reforms he launched. Tardy, who leans towards the centre-right, said Macron had managed to build a “fairly balanced” political platform.

But many left-leaning voters are disappointed with Macron and what they see as a shift to the right during his tenure. Polls suggest some left-leaning voters may opt to abstain from the run-off, even if it means a victory for the far right.

The question of how to vote in such a second-round scenario loomed large before the first round. In Amiens, the birthplace of Macron who voted overwhelmingly for him five years ago, left-wing voters were torn on Saturday.

Marie Raoult, 61, said she approved of Macron’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, from which the French economy emerged less shaken than initially feared.

While she said she would definitely not vote for Macron in the first round, she might support him in the second round, but only “to prevent Le Pen”. Her final decision will likely depend on how close the two are in the polls, she said.

Left-wing voter Claude Watel, 62, said he had already made his choice: in the event of a Le Pen-Macron second round, he would vote blank.

The “republican front” – a coalition of voters to stop Le Pen in 2017 – proved “not much of an obstacle” in hindsight, he said. “Five years later, the far right is even stronger.”


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