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France Braces for High-Stakes Rematch Between Macron and Le Pen

For two weeks, the French president and the far-right leader have been vying for the left-wing vote—and it’s still up for grabs.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and National Rally presidential candidate Marine Le Pen pose prior to taking part in a live televised debate on French TV channels TF1 and France 2 in Saint-Denis, France, on April 20.
Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and National Rally presidential candidate Marine Le Pen pose prior to taking part in a live televised debate on French TV channels TF1 and France 2 in Saint-Denis, France, on April 20.
Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and National Rally presidential candidate Marine Le Pen pose prior to taking part in a live televised debate on French TV channels TF1 and France 2 in Saint-Denis, France, on April 20. LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS—With just days to go before a presidential election runoff takes place this Sunday, France is holding its breath. Polls show incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron defeating far-right National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen, and his strong performance in a televised debate this week has further improved his chances.

But the margin between them remains much narrower than when he crushed her with 66 percent of the vote five years ago. Macron is now polling at around 55 percent and Le Pen at 45 percent. The many undecided voters and the uncertainty over turnout make the final result anything but a foregone conclusion—with potentially huge implications for the unity of Europe.

In the run-up to the first-round vote, which was held on April 10, the most fought-over voters were those on the right, with security, immigration, and the place of Islam in French society dominating much of the campaign. Now, the hopes of both Macron, a centrist with a liberal economic pedigree, and Le Pen, who has spent the last decade at the helm of one of the most successful far-right parties in Europe, largely come down to their ability to woo the left-wing electorate.

PARIS—With just days to go before a presidential election runoff takes place this Sunday, France is holding its breath. Polls show incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron defeating far-right National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen, and his strong performance in a televised debate this week has further improved his chances.

But the margin between them remains much narrower than when he crushed her with 66 percent of the vote five years ago. Macron is now polling at around 55 percent and Le Pen at 45 percent. The many undecided voters and the uncertainty over turnout make the final result anything but a foregone conclusion—with potentially huge implications for the unity of Europe.

In the run-up to the first-round vote, which was held on April 10, the most fought-over voters were those on the right, with security, immigration, and the place of Islam in French society dominating much of the campaign. Now, the hopes of both Macron, a centrist with a liberal economic pedigree, and Le Pen, who has spent the last decade at the helm of one of the most successful far-right parties in Europe, largely come down to their ability to woo the left-wing electorate.

In the first round, most leftists flocked to firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won 22 percent of the vote and came as close as he has ever been to clinching a place in the runoff.

With the other presidential hopefuls failing to win more than a few percentage points each, “the Mélenchon voter base [is] key for both runoff candidates,” said James Shields, a professor of French politics at the University of Warwick. “Each candidate is attempting to retain their core support while selectively reaching across to far-left voters.”

For Mélenchon’s supporters, the choice is less obvious than it may seem. Many of them belong to the same low-income, globalization-wary demographic as Le Pen’s voters. Their candidate has harsh words for both Macron and Le Pen, and while, following the first round, he has urged his backers not to cast a single ballot for the far-right leader, he has stopped short of endorsing Macron.

In 2017, 53 percent of Mélenchon’s voters switched to Macron in the runoff, and just over 10 percent opted for Le Pen, with the rest abstaining or spoiling their ballot. This time around, polls suggest a less reassuring picture for the incumbent president, with less than 40 percent of Mélenchon’s electorate poised to back him, at least 17 percent expected to vote for Le Pen, and the rest preferring not to say.

In recent days, Macron has scrambled to bring more left-wingers aboard. Five years ago, he celebrated his first-round victory by wining and dining some of his closest allies in a swanky Parisian restaurant, a public relations blunder that hardly helped endear him to the working class. This time around, he is playing up his credentials as a progressive, generously quoting socialist icon Jean Jaurès, promising more wealth redistribution, and underscoring the “whatever it costs” approach that he took to alleviate the economic pain inflicted on French households by the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

At a rally in the southern city of Marseille, where Mélenchon topped the first round with a nine-point lead over the president, Macron sought to appeal to the environmental sensibility of the left by presenting himself as the champion of the fight against global warming, in stark contrast to “climate-skeptic” Le Pen. Sunday’s vote will be a choice between “building a common future and jeopardizing it,” he said, borrowing the title of Mélenchon’s manifesto.

For many, Macron’s charm offensive is too little, too late. The president “has disappointed left-wing voters,” said Erwan Lecoeur, a sociologist and French politics expert at the Pacte research group. “Now, he is painfully trying to reassure them in two weeks.”

Mélenchon energized leftist voters with promises to raise unemployment benefits, the minimum wage, and the lowest pensions and to impose significant tax hikes on the wealthy—a platform hardly in line with Macron’s record in office. While in 2017 Macron cruised to victory largely thanks to progressive voters, his fiscal policies benefited the well-off more than anyone else and contributed to the concentration of wealth in the top echelons of French society, quickly earning him the nickname of “president of the rich.” In the first round earlier this month, Macron attracted more than half of the voters who consider themselves economically “privileged” and only 13 percent of the self-described “disadvantaged.”

“I feel like not voting at all [in the second round] or spoiling my ballot by casting again a vote for Mélenchon,” said Anne, a 35-year-old teacher at a high school near Paris. (Her name has been changed because her job doesn’t allow her to publicly express her political views.) “I feel disillusioned, desperate, and I have less and less confidence in politics to bring about more social justice,” she said.

Despite his rhetoric on climate change, many on the left also question Macron’s results on that front, with environmental groups pointing to France’s failure to live up to its own climate commitments. 

Finally, Macron is accused of indirectly legitimizing Le Pen by adopting himself a hard right-wing approach on some of her flagship issues. He pushed through parliament a controversial law against “separatism” that targets French Muslims, and his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, famously accused Le Pen of being “soft” on radical islamism. 

“Macron has contributed more than any other president before him to normalize the far right’s populist rhetoric in France,” argued an editorial published by the left-leaning newspaper Libération after the results of the first round came in. 

For her part, Le Pen, while hardly an easy choice for left-wing voters, is hoping to win over at least some of Mélenchon’s electorate by further softening her image and presenting herself as the protector of the working class. Over the past few days, she sought to parry Macron’s accusations of climate skepticism by reasserting her commitment to the Paris climate agreement, while her campaign team nuanced her long-standing proposal to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public.

On public spending, she hardly misses a chance to hammer Macron over his plans to raise the retirement age, a deeply unpopular reform that triggered a wave of social unrest when the president sought to impose it earlier in his term—before being forced to abandon it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Her state interventionism, particularly to defend people’s purchasing power from the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “is bound to entice all those voters who are neither left-wing nor right-wing but simply in favor of their own wallets,” Lecoeur said.

But the war in Ukraine has also made Le Pen vulnerable over her ties to Moscow. In Wednesday’s televised debate, Macron lambasted her over a loan her party took from a Russian bank close to the Kremlin: “You are in fact in Russia’s grip,” Macron said. At the same time, Le Pen can use her relatively friendly attitude toward Russia, which she shares with Mélenchon, to suggest that as president she would be able to ease tensions with Moscow and reduce the risk of harm to the French economy.

“Her political proximity to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a weakness because the French don’t like him much, but the possibility of less expensive gas and oil as a result of such proximity is very much a strength of hers,” Lecoeur said. “It’s not foreign policy in itself that matters here—the French are looking at what foreign policy means for their day-to-day lives.”

In her speech after the first round, Le Pen called on “the French on the right, the left, and elsewhere, of all origins” to rally behind her. And after five rocky years, marred by soaring economic inequality and dramatic crises such as the yellow-vest protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, an anti-Macron coalition may indeed be taking shape among the most disadvantaged swaths of society.

For his part, Macron is seeking to “re-demonize” his opponent, framing the upcoming vote as “a referendum for or against our Republic.” During the debate, Macron branded as illegal Le Pen’s plan to enshrine a principle of “national priority” for French citizens in the constitution and said Le Pen’s headscarf proposal would betray “France’s universalism” and ultimately spark a “civil war.”

For now, it seems that, while disgruntled, just enough voters are still committed to propping up the republican front against the far right. 

“Voting for Macron will be very tough,” said Mathilde Azema, a civil servant in her early 30s who backed Mélenchon in the first round. “But when faced with the [National Rally], for me there can be no hesitation.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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