French president Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who is challenging him for the presidency, traded insults and accusations on the final day of an increasingly bitter election campaign ahead of the first round of voting on Sunday.
With the latest polls giving Macron a narrow lead if he faces her in the second round on April 24, the centrist president accused Le Pen of lying about the feasibility of her plans for the economy and of adopting a “racist manifesto” that would divide France and ultimately take the country out of the EU.
Le Pen retorted that a “very aggressive” Macron was making “extremely outrageous” comments and showing signs of “feverishness” in the face of her challenge to his re-election bid. She also denied her programme was racist and defended her promise to push for preference for French nationals over foreigners.
“I think Marine Le Pen has a mendacious social programme because it’s not financed,” Macron said in an interview with readers of Le Parisien published by the newspaper on Friday.
“When she says ‘I’m going to increase pensions, just relax’, it’s not true. She’s lying to people because she won’t do it . . . Her programme will create massive unemployment because it will trigger the flight of international investors and it doesn’t make budgetary sense, it won’t work for long.”
Le Pen — who lost to Macron in the second round of the last presidential election in 2017 — has mounted what commentators say is a highly effective campaign in recent months by criss-crossing France to visit small towns and emphasising the problem of rising prices for ordinary people rather than focusing on the anti-immigration policies for which she is better known.
She has promised to eliminate value added tax on a basket of “essentials” of food and household goods, and says she will incentivise companies to increase workers’ pay by up to 10 per cent.
Other measures in Le Pen’s programme include scrapping income tax for everyone under 30, cutting VAT on energy and creating a French sovereign wealth fund to promote an economy focused on what she calls “localism” as opposed to the “globalism” espoused by Macron.
FT subscriber webinar
Join FT correspondents and guests for a Q&A on Monday 11 April at 5pm UK time on the outcome of the first round of voting in France’s presidential election. Register for your free subscriber ticket
She would also slightly reform the costly French pension system but would not raise the retirement age to 65, as Macron has pledged to do.
In her last campaign rally in the far-right stronghold of Perpignan in the south on Thursday night, she said if elected she would adopt a new economic model based on “small and medium-sized companies, localism, economic patriotism and independence — independence in energy, industry, science, medicine, farming and food”.
Another five years of Macron, Le Pen said, would lead to the dismantling of the nation and social desolation. “I don’t hesitate to say it: as head of state Mr Macron has failed,” she added. Her supporters loudly booed the president every time she mentioned him.
Macron’s poll ratings were boosted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February because he was seen as a reliable leader in a time of crisis, but the advantage faded as the war dragged on and the price of fuel and other goods rose sharply.
International diplomacy to help Ukraine and force a Russian withdrawal also left the president with little time for campaigning at home, and he admitted on Friday that he had entered the race “even later than I would have wanted” because of the pandemic and the war.
An opinion poll published on Friday by OpinionWay-Kéa Partners showed Macron leading in the first round with 26 per cent of voting intentions, compared with 22 per cent for Le Pen and 17 per cent for the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In a second-round contest between Macron and Le Pen, the poll showed him winning by 54-46, compared with the 66-34 outcome in 2017.