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Commentary: Could France's Macron lose presidential election to the far-right?

The far-right's appeal on cost of living issues, coupled with voters' perceptions of the incumbent as Parisian elite, is turning the French presidential election to be a much tougher fight than expected, says the Financial Times' Tony Barber.

Commentary: Could France's Macron lose presidential election to the far-right?

Face to face: Elections leaflets for French President Emmnanuel Macron (L) and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen (Photo: AFP/Nicolas TUCAT)

LONDON: In Revolution, a book that he published six months before winning France’s 2017 presidential election, Emmanuel Macron wrote that if the French people did not pull themselves together, the far-right would be in power in five or 10 years’ time. 

This alarming prospect, though not the most likely outcome of the 2022 election, now appears closer to becoming a reality than at any point in the Fifth Republic’s 64-year history.

After the election’s first round on Sunday (Apr 10), Macron and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen will meet in the Apr 24 knockout contest. The same pair fought it out in 2017. But all opinion polls point to a much closer contest than the crushing 66 per cent to 34 per cent triumph that Macron achieved five years ago.

ONE OF THE CLOSEST RACES EVER

A victory for Le Pen would have repercussions far beyond France. It would be a shattering blow to liberal democracy in the Western world and plunge the 27-nation European Union into turmoil just when the United States and its allies are locked in a struggle over Ukraine with President Vladimir Putin’s nationalist Russia.

Macron will take comfort from the fact that his first-round lead over Le Pen was, according to exit polls, bigger than he managed in 2017. Furthermore, no opinion polls have suggested that Le Pen could beat Macron in the knockout round.

However, the gap between the two has narrowed sharply in recent weeks. A month ago, Macron appeared likely to take about 57 to 61 per cent of the second-round vote and Le Pen, 40 to 43 per cent.

Last week, three polls estimated Macron’s vote at 50 per cent to 51.5 per cent and Le Pen’s vote at 48.5 per cent to 49 per cent. Allowing for a margin of error, Le Pen may be within striking distance of an upset victory.

FAR-RIGHT CANDIDATE MARINE LE PEN'S IMPROVED PUBLIC IMAGE

Part of the reason is that much of the electorate no longer sees her as a dangerous radical with outlandish policies and threadbare knowledge of France’s economic and social problems. 

A report by the left-leaning Jean-Jaures Foundation concluded: “The arguments linked to her incompetence or her lack of knowledge no longer seem to hold water at a time when parts of France consider her to be completely presidential and close to the people . . . It is therefore on a completely different terrain that her future opponent will have to beat her in the second round”.

Macron sealed his 2017 victory with a comprehensive demolition of Le Pen in an election debate held between the two rounds. Now it is less certain that a performance like that would benefit him to the same extent. Le Pen has dropped some policies on which she was vulnerable, such as a promise to withdraw France from the 19-nation eurozone.

People walk past presidential campaign posters of French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, in Paris. France's first round of the presidential election takes place on Apr 10, with a presidential runoff on Apr 24 if no candidate wins outright. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Instead, her campaign has developed increasing momentum as she has focused relentlessly on cost of living issues that have become more acute in French voters’ minds since the Ukraine war broke out in February.

She has maintained her appeal to blue-collar workers who once voted for the left in rundown industrial areas and to people in provincial towns and rural areas that were the site of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests of 2018.

UKRAINE DIPLOMACY A TEMPORARY BOOST FOR EMMANUEL MACRON

By contrast, Macron is no longer the dynamic, fresh-faced outsider that he was in 2017, but rather an incumbent president who, in many voters’ minds, is identified with the Parisian elites and the wealthiest strata of French society.

His strenuous diplomatic efforts before and during the Ukraine war gave him a lift in the polls for a few weeks, but that has since faded. His decision not to officially enter the presidential race until almost the last possible minute enabled Le Pen to set much of the pace.

If Macron is to win in two weeks’ time, he will need as many voters as possible from the left, centre and right to rally behind him in a so-called “republican front” against the far-right menace. That worked for Jacques Chirac when he swept aside Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, by 82 per cent to 18 per cent in 2002.

To a lesser but still decisive extent, it worked for Macron in 2017. All the world will be watching to see if it can work again on Apr 24.

Source: Financial Times/geh

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