After comfortably occupying pole position in the French presidential campaign, incumbent Emmanuel Macron is in deep trouble just days before the first round, according to polls and political analysts.
Mr Macron turned French politics on its head five years ago by defeating candidates from the established centre-left and centre-right parties that had dominated the country for decades. But he is generally disliked by voters, and he may be unlikely to be re-elected.
A Harris Interactive poll conducted in early April showed he won a hypothetical second-round duel against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen by a razor-thin 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent within the poll’s margin of error.
An Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll conducted on the same days showed slightly better results, with Macron winning by 54 percent, but still far short of his 66 percent landslide win over Ms Le Pen in 2017.
A Le Pen presidency would have dramatic repercussions on world politics. She is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and reportedly owes millions to Kremlin-influenced financial institutions that fund her campaigns.
She has vowed to pull France out of NATO and the American sphere of influence. She is a far-right populist who holds racist and anti-immigrant views and is allied with former US President Donald Trump and far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who was re-elected on Sunday.
Eurasia Group political analyst Mujtaba Rahman said a Le Pen presidency would plunge the European Union and NATO into an existential crisis at a particularly crucial historical moment.
“That would fundamentally undermine the Western alliance,” he says. “The EU would no longer be able to build a united front against Russia in Ukraine. France would become a destructive partner within the EU and that would have profound implications for the EU’s ability to function and would fundamentally undermine the EU’s place in the world.”
Many have attributed Mr Macron’s faltering performance to a lackluster campaign in which he has focused on playing senior statesmen in defusing the Ukraine crisis while refusing to debate other candidates or appear on political talk shows until recently. On Sunday, just a week before the election, he held his first campaign rally.
“The war has not only overshadowed the political campaign, it has also messed up its campaign calendar,” said Georgina Wright of the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank.
“The French take their presidential campaigns very seriously and you got the feeling he wasn’t taking them very seriously. People feel like he used those TV spots to speak as a president instead of a campaigner.”
In contrast, other candidates have stormed the nation for months, even visiting and bragging about foreign voters abroad.
“I campaigned seriously,” Ms Le Pen, the 53-year-old daughter of French far-right outsider Jean-Marie Le Pen, said in a radio interview on Tuesday. “I’ve been in the field for six months…others have chosen not to run, including the President of the Republic.”
Mr Macron attributed Ms Le Pen’s success to his failure to stem the rise of the far right in a radio interview on Monday. “I haven’t been able to contain it,” he said.
But others say 44-year-old Mr Macron has simply been outstripped by the more politically experienced Ms Le Pen, who has toned down her party’s traditional obsession with Muslim immigration in what appears to be a successful attempt to soften her image. She has instead focused on economic bread-and-butter issues affecting lower and lower-middle-class French families, such as rising fuel and heating bills.
“To be honest, this is more about Le Pen than Macron,” says Adele Stebach, a Lillie-based analyst and correspondent for Europe chooses, a news website summarizing and analyzing European election results and polls. “She is benefiting from very strong momentum after shifting her party’s focus from issues of security and immigration to purchasing power, inflation and wages.”
In France’s two-round political system, voters will go to the polls on Sunday to choose from a dozen candidates including leftists, rightists, ecologists and agronomists. If, as is widely expected, no candidate wins an outright majority, the two frontrunners will face off in a runoff on April 24.
The 2022 campaign in general was a generally bleak affair, revealing a crisis of inspiration and ideas in French politics. Politicians are increasingly admonishing unenthusiastic and cynical voters to vote for them. The streets are littered with drab images of the candidates and empty slogans.
“The courage to act,” say the posters of centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse.
“Another world is possible,” reads the advertisements posted by left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon
“All of us,” say Macron’s.
Many of the ads were defaced, but often in the same way, with the contestants’ eyes gouged out to give them the appearance of otherworldly ghouls.
Ms Wright suggested the agony of the Covid crisis colored the tone of the campaign season.
“The French are recovering from one crisis after another,” she says. “Each candidate promises a way out, but instead of discussing ideas, they campaign in parallel.”
Mr. Macron, a cosmopolitan pro-business centrist and former investment banker, appeared headed for an easy win a few weeks ago after putting on a statesmanlike air after the Ukraine crisis, in which he attempted to play a senior diplomatic role. But his poll numbers have fallen steadily since mid-March, while those of Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon, who also focuses on economic and social justice issues, have risen sharply.
Mr Macron has also come under fire for speaking to more than 1bn. Mr Macron said there was nothing “murky” or illegal about the contracts, but they reinforce the feeling that the president is a distant elitist. “Advisory groups will be gone with me,” Mr Melenchon said.
Ms Le Pen has also benefited from the candidacy of far-right Eric Zemmour, whose inflammatory diatribes against immigrants and Muslims made her appear relatively moderate. In recent years, even Mr Macron and his deputies have indulged in rhetoric that has demonized France’s Muslim minority, normalized such attitudes and allowed the views of Ms Le Pen and her party to infect mainstream discourse.
Though her blunt speeches focus on the economy, her National Rally Party continues to call for an end to welfare payments for foreigners, a halt to immigrant family reunification, and a ban on Islamic head coverings in public spaces.
“The far right is no longer scary for French voters,” Ms Stebach said. “A lot of people who didn’t think about voting for Le Pen before are doing it now. I think it’s going to be very close and I even think Le Pen could win. If I had to bet, I would even say that Le Pen will win.”