French election race wide open as far-right Le Pen closes in on Macron after softening her image

They are vintage car lovers and struggling students. They are retirees living in the countryside, cheerful, multilingual accountants who have lived abroad, and even frustrated, disadvantaged members of the country’s Muslim minority.

What unites them is an intention to vote for Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right candidate who appears to have successfully smoothed the rougher edges of her image as a proto-fascist fanatic and gotten into conspicuous reach of the presidency.

“The election of Marine Le Pen in 2022 has nothing to do with racism or fascism,” said Nathan Gazzoli, a 19-year-old student in Toulouse and a first-time voter. “It’s a vote for the people.”

While most polls show incumbent President Emmanuel Macron narrowly winning the vote, a stunning Atlas Politico poll on Thursday showed that Ms Le Pen, heir to the far-right Front National party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen , Mr. Macron edged out 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent in a hypothetical second-round match.

The French head to polling stations on Sunday for the first round of voting, which comes at a particularly pivotal time in European history as Russia is at war with Ukraine and the world is recovering from a two-year pandemic.

Ms Pen, who has been campaigning aggressively across France and even abroad for months, initially raised doubts when she shifted her rhetoric away from immigration and culture issues that formed the core of her father’s political platform and focused on economic issues such as inflation. purchasing power and retirement age.

Her blunt speeches became more about Jeremy Corbyn than Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, whom she considers a close ally.

“If the purchasing power problem is strangling you today, it’s because previous politicians have impoverished you, brought public accounts to a slump and even left our children in debt for long periods,” Ms Le Pen told a crowd in the southern city of Perpignan this week.

That shift is now being confirmed as her party, the National Rally, stands poised to do better than at any time in its 50-year history.

“I believe in France,” she said in an interview with this week The European Conservative. “I dedicate every second of my life to the happiness of the French people, which is my top priority in all my struggles.”

Marine Le Pen poses for a photo during a campaign visit to a market in Dunkirk, northern France, March 12, 2022

(AFP via Getty Images)

Although Ms Pen is still trailing Mr Macron in all but one poll, she has gained significant ground in recent weeks while the French are notoriously fickle when it comes to their voting intentions.

In polls conducted just a week before the election, a third of voters said they could still change their intended vote and drop their preferred candidate. Both left and right of the political spectrum are crowded, while Mr Macron is the undisputed champion of the centrists.

“What’s important to me is convincing people who are seduced by extremes, that extremes don’t provide the right answer, that sometimes people’s fears are valid, but that the real answer is different and that sometimes it can take time,” Herr said Macron said in a radio interview earlier this week.

Mr Macron has seen his lead in the polls dwindle since March, after falling out of favor on conservative proposals such as raising the retirement age to 65, cutting inheritance taxes and tightening access to welfare benefits.

The president has also faced criticism from some voters who believe he has focused more on diplomacy related to Ukraine than on internal affairs. Mr Macron said on Friday that he regrets entering the presidency race late, explaining that he did so because of Vladimir Putin’s war.

Macron poses before a live interview on the set of French private radio station RTL in Neuilly-sur-Seine, April 8, 2022

(AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, turnout on Sunday is expected to be low, with a poll suggesting 30 percent of voters could abstain.

But that could change if alarm bells ring over the budding candidacy of Ms Le Pen, whose name and that of her father still causes shock and ridicule in some quarters in France. A second and deciding round between two top winners from Sunday’s poll is scheduled for April 24th.

Much will depend on the young voters turning up on Sunday. In last year’s regional elections, as many as 87 percent chose not to vote. And while presidential elections generally generate more enthusiasm, some studies predict that up to half of young voters will abstain.

“More than half of my class plans not to vote this Sunday,” Mr Gazzoli said. “It hurts me because I see voting not only as a right but also as a duty. We are asked to help shape our future.”

Up until a few weeks ago, Mr. Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker, looked set to be sailing towards an easy second-round win.

But he is embroiled in a disastrously timed scandal that has seen hundreds of millions of euros paid to consulting firms to advise the state on the Covid crisis. Mr Macron has defended his government, but the saga has drawn criticism from both left and right, reinforcing the view that he is an outspoken elitist more focused on the interests of the super-rich than ordinary French people.

“He stigmatizes and despises unions by saying that in the classrooms there are teachers who do the ‘union minimum’ as opposed to teachers who do more,” Yannick Jadot, the Green Party candidate, said loudly on Thursday Le Monde. “I find it shameful.”

The failure of the left contenders to unite under one candidate has benefited both Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen.

A man walks past posters of Macron and Le Pen’s presidential campaign in Anglet, southwestern France, April 8, 2022

(AP)

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise, has also risen sharply in polls in recent weeks, but not nearly enough to reach the second round. He has also championed economic issues and tried to address voters’ daily concerns, but has been pilloried by candidates from the Socialist, Green and Communist parties.

Mr Gazzoli said that many of his colleagues are left-leaning and routinely call him a fascist and racist because he is a Le Pen supporter. He is not a fan of far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, who posed a serious threat to Le Pen early in the campaign but has recently plummeted in the polls.

“Zemmour talks a big game about security and immigration, but if you want to run the country that’s not enough,” Mr Gazzoli said.

“Marine Le Pen was very smart about talking about both security and the cost of living,” he said The Independent. “She has spent a lot of time talking to older people who are struggling to make ends meet.”

A victory by Ms Le Pen, or less likely Mr Melenchon, would have far-reaching geopolitical implications for a country that is the EU’s second largest economy. Even if the French parliament could curb their ambitions. Ms Le Pen allegedly owes millions of euros to banks run by Kremlin-linked oligarchs and has spoken out against the European Union and NATO.

Mr. Melenchon, on the other hand, “is so fundamentally anti-American, he has supported all the dictatorships that have been anti-American,” Mr. Jadot said.

Mr Gazzoli predicted that both far-right voters and supporters of the left would rally around Ms Le Pen in the runoff.

“What we have in common with the left is that we all agree that another five years of Macron would be a disaster,” he said. “(Ms. Le Pen) has never been so close to victory.”

Gert Van Langendonck contributed to this report

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