Nervous time in Macron camp as far-right leader Le Pen gains momentum

Election looked set to be a replay of 2017 but the president’s win is no longer a certainty

in Paris For many months the results of the French presidential election seemed a foregone conclusion. Opinion polls indicated that President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen would eliminate 10 other candidates in the first round of the poll on Sunday, and that Macron would go on to defeat Le Pen in the run-off on April 24th.

It was to be a replay of the last election in 2017, though Le Pen was expected to narrow substantially the margin between herself and Macron. That remains possible.

But Macron’s poll ratings have fallen in recent weeks, while Le Pen’s rose dramatically. The momentum is clearly with Le Pen. A poll published on Friday afternoon afternoon by the Ifop and Elabe Opinion polling institutes showed the far-right leader only one to two points behind Macron in the first round, at 24 or 25 per cent, compared to 26 per cent for Macron.

Three extreme right-wing candidates – Le Pen, Eric Zemmour and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – appear set to win more than a third of the vote in the first round, making the xenophobic far right the largest political grouping in a country which prides itself on being the birthplace of the declaration of human rights.


Earlier projections showed Macron defeating Le Pen by up to eight points in the runoff, but that margin narrowed to 51-49 in yesterday’s Elabe poll.

There is the tiniest chance that left-wing and Green voters will heed Jean-Luc Mélenchon's exhortations to abandon five other candidates and "vote useful", sending Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise party, to the run-off instead of Le Pen.

The campaign has been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. Macron was so busy trying to negotiate with Russian president Vladimir Putin that he did not even declare his candidacy until March 4th. His poll ratings were initially buoyed up by what political scientists call the "flag effect". Two-thirds of voters praised his ability to confront crises and said he projected a favourable image of France.


But as the war continued, fears of a third world war gave way to anxiety over rising energy and food costs. The shortages created by the war were a boon to Le Pen, who had softened her image as an angry, racist crusader against immigrants and Islam by focusing on the cost of living, which polls indicate is the leading concern of the electorate. If elected she promises to reduce VAT on energy from 20 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

Macron has spent €26 billion to defray the rising cost of energy to French consumers. He has played a central role in reinvigorating the European Union, and achieved the lowest jobless rate in 15 years at 7.4 per cent. These accomplishments do not seem to register with millions of voters who persist in portraying him as the arrogant "president of the rich". Remarks by a caller to a France Bleu radio programme that Macron "isn't there for us" and cares more about Ukraine than the fate of the French are typical.

Macron has courted Putin for years in the mistaken believe that the Russian dictator could be tamed by dialogue and that he, Macron, could prevent a war. The Green MEP and presidential candidate Yannick Jadot this week echoed criticism by Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki that Macron achieved nothing by cultivating a relationship with Putin.

“Before the invasion, our president . . . was calling him ‘dear Vladimir’ and using [the familiar]‘tu, tu, tu’ when we already knew that Putin was a war criminal,” Jadot said.

The war has disproved the truism that foreign policy does not count in French presidential elections. It sank the candidacy of Eric Zemmour, who almost overtook Le Pen in polls last year. Zemmour is now tied for fourth place in polls with the mainstream conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse.

Le Pen borrowed more than €9 million from a Russian bank close to the Kremlin to finance her 2017 campaign. This time she has deftly tiptoed around her proximity to Putin’s regime.

Zemmour, on the other hand, attempted to justify the invasion by saying that Ukraine had historically been part of Russia. Most damaging, he said Ukrainian women and children refugees risked destabilising France and that he preferred they went to Poland. An 85 per cent majority of the French support helping Ukrainian refugees.


Macron and his entourage have in recent days gone on the offensive against Le Pen, emphasising her “discourse of hatred” and again presenting the election as a confrontation between pro-European progressives and nationalist populists.

Le Pen has convinced millions of French voters that she is close to them. She is almost universally referred to as “Marine”. By contrast, when a lycée student addressed Macron as “Manu”, the diminutive of Emmanuel, in 2018, he snapped back: “You call me Monsieur le Président de la République.”

Beneath Le Pen’s newfound aura of a protective, caring mother, her basic programme has not changed. Like Zemmour, she subscribes to the “great replacement” theory of a conspiracy to replace France’s white, Christian population with Africans and Arabs. She calls the Muslim headscarf “a totalitarian uniform” and promises to ban the head covering in all public places.

She would hold a referendum to enshrine in the constitution priority access for French citizens over immigrants to jobs, housing, social benefits, and hospital beds.

Le Pen and Macron traded insults on Friday, the last day of the campaign. He denounced her “racist programme” in an interview with Le Parisien. “I find him very aggressive since he started campaigning,” Le Pen retorted on France Info radio. “I challenge him to find a single proposal in my programme that discriminates against the French by origin, religion or the colour of their skin . . . Giving supplementary rights in function of a person’s nationality has never been considered racism in any law.”

Le Pen promises to lower the retirement age from 62 to 60. Macron says he will raise it to 65 as early as next autumn. That, and Macron’s plan to make France’s basic welfare payment, the RSA, contingent on 15 to 20 hours of monthly “activity or training”, may please his conservative, affluent supporters, but risks strengthening abstention among former Socialist supporters who voted for him en masse five years ago.


In 2017, Macron said the traditional opposition between conservative Gaullists and moderate Socialists, which dominated the politics of the Fifth Republic since its foundation by Charles de Gaulle, was over.

This election would appear to confirm Macron's prophecy, with a humiliating end for both historic parties. Pécresse, the candidate for the neo-Gaullist Les Républicains, once seen as the greatest threat to Macron's re-election, is likely to finish fourth or fifth on Sunday night. And Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, will gain about 2 per cent of the vote.

A record number of voters, close to 30 per cent, could mark their disillusionment with French politics by staying home on Sunday.

If Macron is re-elected and goes ahead with pension reform, observers fear that a “third round” of the presidential poll may play out in violent street protests, similar to the 2018-2019 yellow vests revolt.

"Salvation is to be found in the street, not in the ballot box," Philippe Poutou, one of two Trotskyist candidates, warned this week.