Macron issues last-minute plea to young voters before France election

Macron issues last-minute plea to younger voters to back him in France’s election tomorrow as his lead over far-right Marine Le Pen evaporates

  • Emmanuel Macron pledged to fight social inequalities and climate change Friday
  • Comes as one poll showed tightest gap ever, with Marine Le Pen on 49 per cent
  • First round of election to be held on Sunday, candidates can no longer campaign 

French President Emmanuel Macron has appealed to younger, progressive-leaning voters in his last scheduled interview before Sunday’s first-round presidential vote while his forecast lead over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen further evaporated.

Less than 48 hours before the first-round vote, the race for the top job in the euro zone’s second-largest economy appeared to be coming down – once again – to the two finalists of the 2017 election.   

But while Macron was still slightly ahead in opinion polls, his re-election no longer appeared to be a foregone conclusion on Friday with Le Pen climbing in surveys, some of them putting her within the margin of error.

‘When it comes to correcting social inequalities at their root, we have begun the work, but we are very far from having succeeded,’ he told online news outlet Brut in a long interview, pledging also to do more to fight climate change. 

It came as a poll on Friday showed the tightest gap ever, with Le Pen seen winning 49 per cent of votes in a likely runoff against the president, her best polling score on record. 

The poll, published on BFM TV’s website , showed that Macron had lost a further two points at 26 per cent support and Le Pen had gained two points to 25 per cent.

While Emmanuel Macron was still slightly ahead in opinion polls, his re-election no longer appeared to be a foregone conclusion on Friday with Marine Le Pen climbing in surveys. (Pictured: Macron poses for a picture as he meets people at an open market in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, on April 8, 2022)

Le Pen has centered her bid on purchasing power, softening her image and tapping into promising to cut taxes and hike some social benefits, worrying financial markets as she gains momentum in the polls. (Pictured: Le Pen on campaign trail this week) 

Hours before candidates and their aides are required by French election law to refrain from making any political statements until election offices close on Sunday evening, there was a growing sense of discomfort among Macron supporters.

‘I think we’ll be OK, but it’s going to be a hard one,’ one minister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Campaign insiders say Macron urgently needs to appeal to the broadest possible voter base before the first round, because coming second behind Le Pen on Sunday would give her strong momentum ahead of the runoff.

Le Pen has centered her bid on purchasing power, softening her image and tapping into promising to cut taxes and hike some social benefits, worrying financial markets as she gains momentum in the polls.  

Rival far-right candidate Eric Zemmour’s radical, outspoken views have helped her look more mainstream and many left-leaning voters have told pollsters that, unlike in 2017, they would not vote in the second round to keep Le Pen out of power.

‘They won’t necessarily vote for Marine Le Pen, but they don’t want to vote for Emmanuel Macron,’ said Jean-David Levy, the deputy director of polling institute Harris Interactive.

‘Marine Le Pen has never been so capable of winning a presidential election.’ 

Macron visited a market in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris this morning after a radio appearance on the last day of campaigning ahead of the vote on Sunday

Despite a push to rebrand herself, Marine Le Pen returned to familiar themes on the election trail last night by pledging to fine Muslims who wear headscarves in public. 

She held a campaign rally in the southern stronghold of Perpignan where her National Rally party runs the local council. 

Speaking to RTL radio beforehand, Miss Le Pen explained her pledge to ban the headscarf in all public spaces would be enforced by police in the same way as seatbelt-wearing in cars.

Miss Le Pen said she will use referendums to avoid challenges to proposed laws on the basis they are discriminatory and an infringement on personal freedoms.

As some in the president’s camp complained about a lack of preparation, his team having spent the bulk of the last months dealing with the war in Ukraine, Macron on Friday voiced regrets about having joined the race much later than his competitors.

‘So it is a fact that I entered (the campaign) even later than I wished,’ Macron said, adding that he retained a ‘spirit of conquest rather than of defeat.’

‘Who could have understood six weeks ago that all of a sudden I would start political rallies, that I would focus on domestic issues when the war started in Ukraine,’ Macron told RTL radio earlier on Friday.

Macron, who has spent the past five years wooing the centre-right, suddenly changed course, telling voters he would further shield them from rising living costs and the dangers of Le Pen, whom he labelled a racist.

‘Her fundamentals have not changed: It’s a racist programme that aims to divide society and is very brutal’, said Macron.

Le Pen told broadcaster Franceinfo that she was ‘shocked’ at the accusation, which she rejected, branding the president ‘febrile’ and ‘aggressive’.

She said her programme, which includes adding a ‘national priority’ principle to the French constitution, would not discriminate against people on grounds of their origin – as long as they held a French passport. 

In his last scheduled interview before Sunday’s vote, Macron reiterated his warning against the rising far-right.

‘They play with the fear,’ Macron told online news outlet Brut on Friday in a last-minute appeal to progressive-leaning, younger voters. 

‘They make short-term minded proposals, the financing of which sometimes is completely unclear.’

According to opinion polls, around a third of voters have yet to make up their minds, which analysts say often favours candidates with realistic chances to enter the second round as undecided voters tend to go for what the French call a ‘useful vote’, meaning voting strategically.

Other than Macron and Le Pen, this trend is set to favour far-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon who – also on an upward trend – ranks third with around 17% of forecast votes.

Left-wing figure Christiane Taubira, a former minister who dropped out of the race after she failed in her attempt to rally the left behind her, on Friday endorsed Melenchon, saying he was now the left’s best hope.

I know many want to see Macron get a bloody nose. But Marine Le Pen could bring even more chaos than Trump, says ANDREW NEIL – as France goes to the polls tomorrow with a Right-wing populist breathing down the posturing President’s neck 

By Andrew Neil for the Daily Mail 

Almost two months ago Marine Le Pen, the only serious threat to President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to be re-elected in this month’s French presidential contest, produced an eight-page pamphlet extolling her virtues.

It included a photograph of the seriously Right-wing populist shaking hands with President Putin in 2017. Over 1.2 million copies were printed for distribution.

Then Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Liberation, a Left-wing Paris newspaper, gleefully reported that local party officials had been urgently instructed to destroy every copy of the pamphlet.

How all of chic Metropolitan France chortled. She was already trailing badly in the polls. This embarrassment would hole her below the waterline. Their man would now cruise to victory. Another five years in the Elysee Palace for the centrist incumbent beckoned.

Well, they’re not laughing now. France votes in the first round of its presidential election tomorrow. There are 12 candidates, most of them no-hopers. Macron is still ahead in the polls but in the past month Le Pen has relentlessly whittled down his lead.

Only the two who top tomorrow’s vote — almost certainly Macron and Le Pen — will go forward to a second election on April 24.

Some of the polls for this run-off now give Macron just a three-point lead, well within pollsters’ margin of error. Only a few weeks ago the polls had him up to 18 points ahead. In the same run off in the 2017 presidential race Macron won by some 30 points.

One poll on Thursday even had Le Pen ahead by one point, which was enough to give the French establishment a fit of the vapours.

Incidentally, it doesn’t look as if that pamphlet was trashed after all. It’s still available on her party’s website, Putin picture included.

One poll on Thursday even had Le Pen ahead by one point, which was enough to give the French establishment a fit of the vapours

Just why her continued association with Putin — and previous admiration for him — hasn’t damaged her, given mounting Russian atrocities in Ukraine, is a mystery to some. After all, it has done for her hard-Right rival, Eric Zemmour, an even bigger fan of Putin than Le Pen who once opined that the country needed a ‘French Putin’.

Only a few months ago Zemmour looked like replacing Le Pen on the nationalist Right, which was one reason her campaign was floundering. But he staked out even more hardline positions on immigration and Islam than her, which repelled all but his hardcore support.

His demise in the polls to 10 per cent or less has been her gain and a major reason she is now a credible challenger to Macron.

Macron has also been her unwitting ally. Le Pen has condemned the Ukraine invasion but she’s still reluctant to criticise Putin, refuses to blame Russia for its obvious barbarities and her party has yet to repay a €9 million loan from a Putin-friendly Russian bank taken out in 2014.

But it’s hard for Macron to accuse Le Pen of being too cosy with the Kremlin despot when he himself has been making repeated lengthy calls to Putin in his self-appointed role as global peacemaker, especially since he has nothing to show for it.

It sometimes seems that Macron has spent more time on the phone to Putin than he has on the campaign trail. Macron decided early on that he would stay above the electoral fray and strut instead on the world stage in the grand manner beloved by French presidents.

Some of the polls for this run-off now give Macron just a three-point lead, well within pollsters’ margin of error. Only a few weeks ago the polls had him up to 18 points ahead

It was a huge strategic mistake. It reinforced his aloof and arrogant image, which led critics to dub him Jupiter, the imperious and icy supreme god of Roman mythology, when he ascended to the presidency.

This has also played into Le Pen’s hands. While Macron has Putin on speed dial, she has been campaigning tirelessly in the small towns and villages of what is called peripheral France — the places far away from the pro-Macron metropolitan centres that are populated by people who feel ignored by the political elite and left behind.

It was from these areas that the famous ‘gilets jaunes’ or ‘yellow vest’ protesters (named after their high-viz jackets) emerged in 2018 after Macron’s enthusiasm for all manner of green initiatives resulted in an increase in duty on petrol and diesel.

I remember speaking to one at a rural roundabout who summed up the metropolitan/small town divide perfectly: ‘This increase in duty has been imposed on us by a Parisian political establishment that can commute to work on the world’s finest public transport system. We have to use our cars. There is no public transport here.’

Now that small-town France is in the grip of a much worse cost-of-living crisis, very similar to but not quite as bad as Britain’s, Le Pen is exploiting it for all it’s worth.

Her campaigning has been barely noticed by French mainstream commentators because it’s largely unreported in national media. But local media are lapping it up.

Immigration and Islam are taking a back seat as Le Pen rails against the decline in ‘le pouvoir d’achat’ — people’s purchasing power. She promises to slash VAT on fuel and energy, lower motorway tolls and bring back the wealth tax that Macron scrapped.

She would exempt under-30s from income tax and cut the retirement age from 62 to 60 (Macron wants to increase it to 65).

How France would pay for all of this when it’s already taxed to the hilt and drowning in debt is left unsaid.

Yet when it comes to economic populism, for the left-behind it ticks a lot of boxes. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be taxed for only 30 years of a lifetime’s work? If Boris Johnson is in trouble come the next general election I wouldn’t be surprised to see him raid the Le Pen policy box.

It means Le Pen will pick up not just Zemmour votes in the second round but Left-wing votes, too.

The leading candidate of the Left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is an ageing, unreconstructed Marxist (and yet another Putin fan boy — what is it with these French politicians?)

He is likely to come third tomorrow. Polls suggest many of his voters simply won’t vote in round two and those who do are more likely to vote Le Pen (whose economic policies are not that different from Melenchon’s) than Macron.

This is significant. In the past, when mainstream politicians have faced a Le Pen in round two (Jacques Chirac in 2002, Macron in 2017) they’ve always been able to count on all the other parties to rally round to see off the hard-Right. Not in 2022.

It’s difficult to think of a worse issue for the remote, unworldly Macron than plain folks’ cost of living (just as it’s a bad one for Johnson, too).

His one big rally to date was at a rugby club in Paris, a city he will win by a landslide. It was attended by thousands of cheering, affluent millennials, for whom living costs are not a huge issue. It has finally dawned on him that this is not how to win an election.

Immigration and Islam are taking a back seat as Le Pen rails against the decline in ‘le pouvoir d’achat’ — people’s purchasing power. She promises to slash VAT on fuel and energy, lower motorway tolls and bring back the wealth tax that Macron scrapped

I dined at a restaurant in Nice this week with one of the President’s close friends and mentors. He was proudly telling me that Macron had awarded him the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit.

As we talked a text landed on his mobile. He showed it to me. It was from the President, apologising that he couldn’t make the ceremony. Why? Because he now had to campaign non-stop.

So Jupiter will now come down among us mere mortals for a hectic two weeks between the first and second rounds of voting. His campaign slogans are ‘Avec vous’ (With you) and ‘Nous tous’ (All of us). Few are convinced by them. They are so not Macron. It is not too late for him to pull things round.

However, perhaps his biggest enemy is not Le Pen but apathy, provoked by widespread antipathy to him. Polls suggest up to 30 per cent might not vote, which is a high abstention rate by French standards. That would help Le Pen, who has more of a loyalcore vote.

His non-campaign so far means his presidential achievements have gone unremarked. He’s handled the pandemic as well as any leader. The French economy returned to its pre-pandemic level faster than any other major economy bar America.

His liberalising economic reforms have helped cut unemployment to a 14-year low — so much so that it isn’t even an issue in the election (though at 7.4 per cent ‘le chomage’ is still twice the UK level). Nursery education from the age of three is national and compulsory.

In the poorest areas, primary school class sizes have been cut and free school breakfasts provided. He’s made it easier to launch a business and the number of start-ups is now at a record level.

Paris is becoming an important hub for technology and France is once again the most popular destination for foreign investment in the EU. All this has come at some cost.

The state, which already accounted for an incredible 55 per cent of French GDP (versus around 40 per cent in the UK), is now closer to an unsustainable 60 per cent.

National debt has soared to 115 per cent of GDP, making France the third most heavily indebted country in the world after America and Japan (yes, it’s overtaken Italy, which is now in fourth place). Over half of that debt is held by foreigners, which raises the risk they could dump it.

Some of this will be debated in the TV confrontation broadcast between the two voting rounds.

It is a gladiatorial epic and in 2017 was a disaster for Le Pen. She was badly prepared and out of her depth. Her cringeworthy performance sealed her fate the following Sunday. But five years later she seems far more across her briefs. In a close-run contest it will be a crucial broadcast for both candidates.

Zemmour’s nihilism has helped Le Pen rebrand and reposition both herself and her party to project a more moderate face.

She changed the party’s name to National Rally from National Front, which was redolent with neo-fascist overtones and too associated with its previous leader, her neo-Nazi father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

She expelled a few of its more obvious racists and thugs. She softened her rhetoric when it came to immigration and Islam, while still maintaining some pretty hardline positions (including banning the Muslim headscarf in public).

She ditched her support for Frexit — withdrawal from the European Union — and has even come to terms with the euro. Her plan to return to the franc frightened older voters, some her natural supporters, who wanted their pensions in the stable, reliable euro.

But the rest of Europe still has reason to fear a Le Pen presidency. It could be even more destabilising than Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House.

Le Pen’s particular brand of economic nationalism means she thinks French citizens should have priority for access to welfare, jobs, housing and healthcare, which is against EU rules and is designed to be anti-immigrant.

She wants French law to be superior to EU law and to cut French contributions to Brussels. All that spells chaos and crisis for the EU if she was ever in a position to deliver.

Britain has cause to fear, too. She is broadly pro-Russian and anti-American, so much so that she wants to pull France out of Nato. Just as the Atlantic Alliance is getting its act together in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, that would be a calamity for the UK and its allies.

After Macron’s petty, petulant and sometimes even pathetic attitude to Britain these past five years, I can understand why some Brits would relish him getting a bloody nose.

But a Le Pen presidency would bring huge instability to Europe at a time when it has to be united and focused on the many threats it faces.

So the stakes are high for all of us in this presidential election.

Six years ago, when he was limbering up for his first run at the presidency, Macron wrote: ‘If we don’t pull ourselves together in five or ten years the National Front will be in power’.

The next two weeks will tell us if Jupiter has done enough to heed his own warnings.

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