President Emmanuel Macron has started a frantic hunt for working-class votes across France in an attempt to ensure victory over his resurgent far-right rival Marine Le Pen in the second and final round of the country’s presidential election on April 24.
Macron travelled on Monday to meet voters in Denain, a poor post-industrial town in northern France where Le Pen won considerable support, and was due to visit another of his rival’s strongholds in eastern France on Tuesday.
Le Pen also relaunched her campaign on Monday with a planned trip to northern Burgundy to talk to farmers about inflation and the high costs of inputs such as fuel and fertiliser.
In the first round on Sunday, Macron and Le Pen qualified for the run-off — as they did at the last election in 2017 — with 28 per cent and 23 per cent of the votes respectively.
Despite his first-round lead, the liberal president faces what his supporters say will be a very tight re-election race, because many of those who voted for the 10 eliminated candidates lean towards Le Pen’s protectionist economic policies and her brand of anti-immigration, Eurosceptic nationalism.
In Denain more than a third of eligible residents did not vote at all on Sunday and of those who did mostly voted for Le Pen or the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In both that town and the site of Macron’s planned campaign stop on Tuesday voters have appreciated Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living, particularly the rise in diesel and petrol prices since the start of the Ukraine war.
Macron will seek to shake off his image as an out-of-touch elitist and emphasise the benefits for ordinary people of his economic reforms and his plan for full employment, while pointing out the flaws in Le Pen’s manifesto of inward-looking protectionism and “localism”.
Like Le Pen, he has offered his former rivals a role in running the country in an urgent bid to secure their votes in the next two weeks.
“I am ready to invent something new to bring together various beliefs and sensibilities to build with them a common project in the service of our nation in the coming years,” Macron told his supporters on Sunday night.
Le Pen continues to speak out against immigration and crime but repeated on Sunday night that she wanted to be “president of all the French”.
Richard Ferrand, who heads Macron’s party in the National Assembly, acknowledged that the president would have to move beyond a frontal attack on Le Pen’s policies targeting Muslims and immigrants.
“When you tell the French that the extreme right reminds us of the sound of jackboots on the street, you can see that doesn’t work,” Ferrand told FranceInfo radio on Monday. “So we have to go deeper and explain what we are proposing and exactly what Mrs Le Pen is proposing.”
Bruno Cautrès, politics professor at Sciences Po, said the campaign over the next two weeks would be “very intense”. Macron would struggle to convince leftwing voters of his sincerity, and unlike in 2017 — when he was a political newcomer from the liberal centre — he now faces an “anti-Macron” front just as his rival faces the same “anti-Le Pen” one that deprived her of victory five years ago.
“And if Macron wins it will not be the same victory as in 2017. It will be much harder for him and his reform campaign,” said Cautrès. “He has to respond to demands for social justice . . . There will be strong political tensions.”
Even on election night on Sunday, hundreds of anti-fascist and anti-capitalist demonstrators had to be dispersed by police after taking to the streets of Rennes and Lyon, recalling some of the anti-government gilets jaunes (yellow vest) demonstrations that plagued the first half of Macron’s presidency.
Losing candidates and political parties, meanwhile, have pleaded for cash from their supporters. Valérie Pécresse of the conservative Les Républicains scored below the 5 per cent threshold above which the state reimburses campaign expenses.
She said the party was in a “critical situation” after spending €7mn that would not be repaid, while she herself had taken on personal debt of €5mn. “I urgently need your help,” she said on Monday. “It’s about the survival of Les Républicains and of the republican right.”
Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, the French green party, also said it was in a critical financial position after spending about €6mn because its candidate Yannick Jadot scored only 4.6 per cent.