French presidential race tightens days ahead of first-round vote

Macron holds narrow lead as four candidates vie to secure two places in next month’s run-off

France’s presidential race has entered its final stretch with no clear winner in sight as the main contenders scrap for votes in a flurry of campaign rallies.

With almost a third of the electorate still undecided and the front-runners clustered around 20 per cent in the polls for the first round on Sunday, the race is the most unpredictable the country has seen in recent history.

With two of the four candidates also hostile to the institutions of the European Union, the result of the run-off two weeks later will have far-reaching implications not just for France but for the region as a whole.

On Monday, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron addressed a crowd of more than 20,000 in Paris, while the far-right Front National's Marine Le Pen faced a smaller gathering in an auditorium nearby.


Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sailed through the centre of the capital on a barge on Monday, will be addressing rallies in at least seven cities on Tuesday, using holograms for six of them. Republican candidate Francois Fillon held a rally in Nice on Monday and plans events around Paris by the end of the week.

According to the latest survey by polling company Elabe, released on Monday, support for Mr Macron stands at 24 per cent, while Ms Le Pen is on 23 per cent. Mr Fillon holds 21 per cent, followed by Mr Mélenchon on 18 per cent. Ms Le Pen has threatened to take France out of the EU, while Mr Mélenchon wants to renegotiate the bloc's treaties, including the one that keeps the country in the euro. Mr Macron would defeat any of his rivals in the run-off, the survey showed, so long as he can get there.

"Everyone is petrified," said Edouard Lecerf, head of the political department at polling firm Kantar Sofres. "The challenge for each of the four candidates is to seek new votes without alienating their base. French voters are like fish, like eels – very slippery."

“They all have to try and win a point or two to make it to the second round without doing anything that could have negative repercussions,” Mr Lecerf said. “The idea is to galvanize the troops, give them the idea that victory is possible, and in doing so, bring back those who may have dropped off.”

Criminal charges

For all the defensiveness, the four leading contenders haven’t stopped taking swipes at each other.

In his speech Monday at the Bercy arena in Paris, Mr Macron pulled no punches as he went after Mr Mélenchon's support for Latin American leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who have overseen widespread poverty. "For some, France will be Cuba without the sun or Venezuela without the oil," he said.

Mr Fillon attacked Mr Macron and Mr Mélenchon for making vague promises as he tried to continue his recovery after criminal charges sideswiped his campaign last month. “We begin to wonder which France Mr Macron or Mr Mélenchon is talking about,” he said.

Socialist president Francois Hollande, whom Mr Fillon has accused of masterminding a plot against him, deplored the campaign's lack of substance in an interview Sunday evening with French TV France 5.

“What is talked about in this campaign? Legal cases, charges, so-called secret cabinets,” said Mr Hollande, who opted last year not to seek a second term as his approval rating plumbed record lows. “Events are put together, but where are the useful comparisons?”

While French voters have consistently showed up en masse for presidential elections in the past – participation averages 80 per cent over the past 50 years – current projections show a good third of registered voters may stay home on Sunday. According to Elabe, only 68 per cent of the French are certain of casting their vote.