Emmanuel Macron's election hopes hang in the balance after far right surge

French president's poll lead is sharply reduced as cost-of-living crisis overwhelms Ukraine 'war effect'

French President Emmanuel Macron on the campaign trail in Dijon, France. Reuters
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With little more than a week left before France begins voting in presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron’s hopes of winning a second term hang in the balance after a late surge by the far right leader Marine Le Pen.

Mr Macron appeared to be cruising to a repeat of his 2017 rout of Ms Le Pen, but his lead in the polls has been sharply reduced as the cost-of-living crisis overwhelms the “war effect” — respect for his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Before the first round of voting on April 10, the president’s own aides admit the president is worried.

One senior colleague, Gerald Darmanin, the interior minister, has given a warning that Ms Le Pen, leader of National Rally, a party long considered extremist, could become France’s first female president.

“I have always thought she is dangerous,” he said on France 5. “She can win this election. Every time, I am told 'but no, but no' … [but] she has a strategy that seems to work.”

Five years ago, Mr Macron humiliated Ms Le Pen in a keystone television debate and swept to power on a wave of enthusiasm for his new centrist party, La Republique en Marche. It also won a large parliamentary majority, ending decades of dominance by the conventional right and left.

A pedestrian walks past a campaign poster of France's President and La Republique en Marche party candidate Emmanuel Macron. AFP

But even in defeat, Ms Le Pen collected 10.6 million votes, nearly 34 per cent, in the run-off, demonstrating an appeal that bypassed concerns about the party her father, Jean-Marie, formed as the Front National and seemingly rooted in openly racist, Islamophobic and often anti-Semitic tendencies.

She has continued her policy of “detoxifying’’ her party’s image. While victory for her would horrify French and European left and liberal opinion, she has largely succeeded in making hers seem “a party like any other”.

Supporters shrug off the far-right tag and Ms Le Pen even benefits from being seen as moderate — “softer, nicer, hardworking”, says Mr Darmanin — compared with the other far right candidate, Eric Zemmour. He presents France as under threat from a “great replacement”, Muslims gradually taking over, intent on destroying secular republican values.

While portraying him as anti-Islam, Ms Le Pen has softened her own tone, insisting she opposes only “Islamist ideology”. Mr Zemmour felt obliged to assert in a YouTube clip that, contrary to widespread perception, he harboured no hatred towards Muslims.

Despite luring prominent defectors from Ms Le Pen’s party, including her high-profile niece, Marion Marechal, Mr Zemmour has not built on early promise.

French far-right party RN presidential candidate Marine Le Pen answers journalists' questions on a campaign trip. AFP.

A study of recent polls, by the Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, put Mr Macron on 28 per cent of voting intentions for the first round on April 10, only nine points ahead of Ms Le Pen compared with a lead of 14 only two weeks earlier.

Mr Zemmour trailed on 10-11 points, along with Valerie Pecresse, the centre-right challenger whose faltering campaign has been further hampered by a positive Covid test.

Among other candidates, leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon has seen a recent surge in support.

If no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff on April 24.

The fear for the president is that while he will almost certainly lead in the first round, most of Mr Zemmour’s supporters would then rally behind Ms Le Pen. Mr Macron would remain favourite, but with his emphatic 2017 majority slashed to a much closer and potentially vulnerable margin.

Much would depend on the extent of abstentionism, predicted to reach 30 per cent, and how much of Ms Pecresse’s vote would go to the far right.

Mr Macron was late to declare his candidacy, perhaps relying on voters to credit him for statesmanlike handling of Ukraine. But he has made little obvious impression in public appearances.

“The Macron magic of 2017 no longer works,” wrote Denis Jeambar, a commentator for leading regional newspaper, Nice-Matin. “The eagle that soared over rivals then is now a cuckoo making its programme in the nests of others.”

Jacques Reland, a fellow of the London-based think tank, the Global Policy Institute, told The National: “I think Le Pen will give Macron a much closer run, maybe getting 45-47 per cent of the vote. People may be impressed by the way he has handled Ukraine but are much more concerned about the cost of living.”

Mathieu Gallard, an account director at the Ipsos polling institute, agrees. He said Ms Le Pen had won over many voters by dropping obsessions with French identity and Islam and concentrating on diminishing spending power.

I think Le Pen will give Macron a much closer run, maybe getting 45-47 per cent of the vote
Jacques Reland, fellow at the Global Policy institute

For Christele Lagier, lecturer in political science at the University of Avignon and a specialist on the far right, Ms Le Pen suffers from rejection by more educated people “who vote the most and are aware she will not defend their economic interests (for those on the right) or societal and cultural interests (for those on the left)”.

Ms Lagier feels Mr Melenchon wins support by placing post-Covid and Ukraine social issues at the heart of his campaign. She feels he “embodies a leftist alternative that can seduce those who have found themselves in the protests of recent years, Gilets Jaunes, opposition to Covid health passes, support for nurses”.

If independent observers give Mr Melenchon little chance of unseating Mr Macron, even if he overtook Ms Le Pen to contest the second round on April 24, a lacklustre campaign suddenly seems much livelier, offering at least the possibility — alarming to the political establishment — that the Elysee Palace could end up in extremist hands.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 4:49 PM