French President Emmanuel Macron will probably be re-elected next week - but his victory will be tight amid a surge in support for Marine Le Pen of the far-right.
Le Pen has stood for President in two previous elections but been defeated easily on each occasion. This time she has focused on social issues and many voters have decided that she’s “not a kind of devil” as they had once thought.
“Macron cannot count on an easy victory… it’s the same people as five years ago but the situation is very different,” Reuters journalist Elizabeth Pineau explained.
“He will need to roll up his sleeves to get the votes and the polls say he could win with only 51% of the vote and the last time he won with 66% of the votes.
“So the situation is very different. Marine Le Pen has changed her image… and softened her programme.
“So she seems to be like a new person, so people see her in a different way, she’s not a kind of devil anymore.”
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Key to the outcome of the election will be how the 20% of French people who supported leftwinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon vote in the second round. In his concession speech Mélenchon told his supporters, “You must not give a single vote to Marine Le Pen."
Previously, most could have been counted on to swing behind Macron to keep out Le Pen in a so-called ‘Republican Front’. However, there is a real dislike of Macron on the left due to his support for a rise in the state pension age and other centrist policies that have seen him denounced as “President for the rich”.
“Part of them will stay at home in two weeks, part of them will put a blank piece of paper in the ballot box, others could even vote for Marine Le Pen,” Mme Pineau continued.
“So Macron really needs to be careful this time.”
Le Pen’s campaign has also focused on issues that resonate with many voters who are struggling to make ends meet. Where once the French far right talked non stop about immigration, Le Pen has instead spent months talking about le pouvoir d’achat.
“She doesn’t talk about immigration or security anymore, she talks about the cost of living,” Mme Pineau said.
“She wants to reduce tax on energy, she wants to [abolish] income tax for youngsters under 30.”
Macron has spent much of the year focusing on the war on Ukraine - hoping voters would be impressed with his efforts to keep the peace in Europe.
However, the issue has not resonated hugely on the doorstep; while Le Pen has previously met Putin in the Kremlin and advocated for stronger ties with Russia, once war broke out she quickly denounced him.
“It’s true that she met Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin - which is very rare,” Mme Pineau continued.
“She even got a loan from a Russian bank to finance her previous campaign but this time she was clever because she just said, ‘Well, I just met him once and that doesn’t mean I know him.’
“She very quickly said that the war in Ukraine was wrong and she said, ‘Ukrainian refugees are welcome in France.’”
French voters will vote in the second round of the election on Sunday 24th April.
Main image: Marine Le Pen, candidate for "le Rassemblement National" (RN) for the presidential election, here in her office in Paris, France on November 15, 2021.