Macron and Le Pen in last-gasp appeal to French voters

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Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen are going head-to-head in a final appeal to voters as the French president tries to avoid an upset and secure an emphatic second-term victory in Sunday’s election.

Macron has cemented his frontrunner status in recent days with his poll lead stabilising at around 55 per cent vs 45 per cent for Le Pen, following a television debate in which the rivals traded barbs but landed few knockout blows.

The gap is large enough that a last-minute surge in support for the far-right candidate now looks unlikely, pollsters say. Financial market jitters over a possible Le Pen victory, which would be seen as destabilising for European unity, have eased among bond and stock investors.

“At this stage, a victory for Marine Le Pen seems extremely unlikely,” said Mathieu Gallard of polling group Ipsos. He added that, if abstention was higher than expected on Sunday, Macron’s lead might narrow but that an upset was becoming a more remote possibility.

“The uncertainty now is more about Macron’s score and what it means for the next five years, for the legislative elections and his ability to implement his plans,” said Gallard.

After a resounding win against Le Pen five years ago, running as a first-time candidate who billed himself as “neither left nor right”, former banker and economy minister Macron is facing more pushback among voters over his record on everything from hospitals to the environment, and despite an economic recovery since the height of the pandemic.

Macron is trying to win over supporters of leftwing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was knocked out in the first round of voting on April 10 but won 22 per cent of the vote. In a campaign stop on Thursday Macron visited the poorer northern Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where nearly one in two voters backed Mélenchon.

Macron mingled with residents and donned boxing gloves in an exchange with local sports associations, warning “nothing was set in stone” as he urged people to vote. The move earned him some grudging support, although several locals scoffed at the last-minute appeal to them. 

“I hope he’ll be re-elected and listen to the banlieue more in his second term,” said 54-year-old Ziad. 

Marine Le Pen waves to crowds after a visit to Berck, in northern France, on Friday © Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

Le Pen, who is on her third run for the Elysée Palace, has focused her campaign on high living costs and an attempt to paint Macron as arrogant and out of touch. She has softened her personal image and shifted away from the EU exit talk that hampered her 2017 presidential bid.

Macron has sought to remind people that Le Pen and her proposals would divide the French. He has criticised her plan to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, putting her on the defensive.

On a campaign trip in northern France on Thursday, Le Pen said she had every chance of winning. She pitched herself as the “candidate of a France that works” after climbing on to a truck and talking to lorry drivers.

“It’s neck and neck, but she has to win,” said Marcel, a retired road maintenance worker and longtime far-right supporter.

Later, in Arras, Le Pen addressed several thousand supporters in the biggest rally of her campaign. In a combative speech, which contrasted with her muted performance in Wednesday’s TV debate with Macron, she railed against a “globalist oligarchy” she said had hurt French businesses and an “elite” she accused of destroying rural life. 

“People of France rise up!” she said.

“I’m reasonably confident that she will win,” said Arnaud, a far-right activist from Metz, in north-eastern France. “The activists are very mobilised and the public are open to us and asking us questions.”

All the same Macron’s better than expected performance in the first round of voting, when he won 28 per cent of the vote, and a widening lead over Le Pen in recent days, had reduced the chances of an upset in the eyes of investors, said Kevin Thozet, a member of the investment committee of asset managers Carmignac. 

Top French business leaders who previously gave Macron vocal support for his pro-business, pro-EU stance have largely been more discreet this time round. France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, head of luxury goods group LVMH, who warmly endorsed Macron in a newspaper column in 2017, on Thursday declined to comment on the elections at a shareholder meeting. 

“It’s not really clear that endorsements would help [Macron], for one,” said one senior executive at a top 40 company.

However, the leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal did make a barely disguised appeal to French voters to reject Le Pen, favouring Macron in a joint column published in the French newspaper Le Monde.

Olaf Scholz, Pedro Sánchez and António Costa criticised Le Pen as someone sympathetic to Vladimir Putin who would undermine the EU.

“For us, the second round of the French presidential election is not an election like any other,” they wrote. “It’s the choice between a democratic candidate who believes that France is stronger in a powerful and autonomous EU, and an extreme-right candidate who openly lines up with those who are attacking our liberty and our democracy.”

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