Paris: When Emmanuel Macron published his book, Révolution, just six months before he pulled off a stunning 2017 presidential election victory, he wrote that if the French people did not wake up to themselves then the far-right would soon be in power.
That prospect, although the less likely of scenarios from Sunday’s vote, is however closer to reality than at any point in the Fifth Republic’s 64-year history. And it is sending a wave of concern through Europe.
French President and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron speaks during a campaign rally in Marseille on April 16.Credit:AP
The leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal made a barely disguised appeal to French voters this week to reject Marine Le Pen, a 53-year-old lawyer on her third attempt to reach the pinnacle of power after unsuccessful campaigns in 2012 and 2017.
In a joint column published in the French newspaper Le Monde, Olaf Scholz, Pedro Sanchez and Antonio Costa criticised Le Pen as someone sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin and who would undermine the European Union.
“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.”
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen delivers her speech during a campaign rally in Aras, northern France, on Thursday.Credit:AP
While Macron, a centrist, warned of the threat of the far-right before he won a remarkable 66 per cent of the vote five years ago, it is now not so much a battle of Left and Right as a fight between nationalists and globalists. Or patriots and traitors, if you ask Le Pen’s growing number of supporters.
With the retirement of long-time German chancellor Angela Merkel last year, Macron has assumed the position as the most influential leader in the European Union. A passionate Europhile who once described Brexit as “a crime” delivered by “dishonest politicians”, he has used the final days of the campaign to remind voters of his fierce rival’s views, saying she has a secret “Frexit” plan to follow Britain out of Europe and create a right-wing alliance with Poland and Hungary.
“She wants to leave but dare not dare say so, and that’s never good” he said at a rally in eastern France.
“She says that she wants an alliance of nation states, but she is going to find herself in a corner and she is going to try to come up with an alliance with her friends. It would be a strange club. I don’t think it is a club that would be good for France. I don’t think it would be good for Europe.”
But Macron, 44, has found it harder and harder in recent weeks to pin down Le Pen, who in the five years between losing has reshaped and softened her image and gone about courting new voters from across the political spectrum.
Despite coming from a far more privileged and Parisian background than her opponent, she has portrayed herself as a voice of the downtrodden – the mother of the nation – against the “arrogant” Macron who is the establishment’s candidate of choice.
Whatever the outcome of the re-match between the pair, Le Pen’s progress has been remarkable.
Her father Jean-Marie, a xenophobic and anti-Semitic founder of the Front National party, made the first breakthrough for the far-right in France 20 years ago, when he squared off in the second round of voting against Jacques Chirac.
He was trounced 82 per cent to 18, but his daughter managed to double that figure five years ago and this year the margin is again set to narrow.
Her success has been largely due to her promise to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which has hit France as hard as the rest of the world’s leading economies and – despite the war in Ukraine – tops voter concerns, according to polls.
A long list of catch-all populist economic policies includes slashing VAT – the broad-based consumption tax on the value added to goods and services – on fuel from 20 per cent to 5.5 per cent and removing it from a list of about 100 basic goods.
She wants to encourage firms to increase wages by making the rises free of employers’ contributions and exempt everyone under 30 from paying income tax.
While Macron wants to raise the retirement age to 65, Le Pen would maintain it at its current level of 62 — one of the lowest in Europe — and reduce it to 60 for those who started work before they were 20, mainly those in heavy labour trades.
Pascal Lamy, a former World Trade Organisation commissioner and French businessman, said while Macron had pitched himself as a centrist he had not governed as one.
“Macron is right-wing on some issues and left-wing on other issues,” he said.“He’s right-wing on economics, and he’s left-wing on social issues.
And Le Pen, he says, “has a traditional extreme left, sovereigntist, protectionist, nationalist agenda” while the substance of her manifesto is also traditionally right-wing, including strong anti-European rhetoric and promise to make it a fineable offence for women to wear headscarves in public.
In working-class Arras, a town of around 40,000 people in northern France on Friday morning AEST, Le Pen addressed more than 3000 voters who travelled to see her in person. The line ran for hundreds of metres out the door as over-officious security guards frisked everyone entering the convention centre.
Emilie, 28, who works in retail, said she had driven from nearby Lille to listen to Le Pen.
“People say she’s just like her father but she is not,” she said. “She has answers to the problems we are facing. It is so expensive to live now even outside the cities. She is offering a better life for young people”
Her boyfriend, Robin, 26, who studied IT but is currently working in a bar, agreed. “Macron is only for the rich. He has put up the price of petrol. He does not care about the young or the working class. She is promising to at least to make things better.”
The pair didn’t want their picture taken because they both come from a long line of left-wing voters.
They say that, although they know more people who are voting for Le Pen this time, there is still some stigma. Most of their families won’t vote at all on Sunday, they said, because they “can’t stand either candidate”.
Pollsters are predicting a higher than normal rate of abstention for this second round, with up to around 28.5 per cent of almost 49 million voters likely to stay at home.
But the same winds that brought about Brexit and helped elect Donald Trump are also blowing through France, as Macron, a former banker, tries to shake his reputation as “president of the rich.”
Like America, France too has become bitterly divided on issues of free-trade, immigration and global markets. Disaffected working-class voters in the old industrial heartlands in the north and east are turning to Le Pen where, for generations, they had embraced the socialists and even communists.
And the distribution of the votes in the first round showed that, like in America, Britain and even Australia, there is a major shift taking place where geography determines how people live, think and vote.
Those closer to city centres have more access to services, cultural activities, transport links, hospitals and schools and are more likely they are to be optimistic about their future. And they are voting for Macron.
Le Pen went on the attack during her final rally of the campaign, dubbing Macron and her media critics a “cohort of sad sires”, “merchants of fear” and “peddlers of slander”.
The National Rally candidate 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. To chants of “Marine, president, Marine, president” she took aim at “the system” which she said “drapes itself in morality and relies on the maimed of past politics,” referring to former presidents of the Republic – Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande who have both endorsed Macron.
Supporters of French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at her campaign rally in Aras.Credit:AP
She contrasted her “family of families that is the nation” with the vision of the opposing camp she said would lead “towards isolation, discord, and the abyss”.
Macron’s France would be “a nomadic and liquid world,” she said, governed by a “law of the jungle” built on “social contempt, lack of empathy, and brutality.”
The first signs of a shift against Macron came in November 2018, with a series of grassroots, populist rallies in small towns and rural France. The so-called Yellow Vest movement took its name from the high-visibility jackets protesters adopted as a symbol of their complaint. They sprang up spontaneously gainst hikes in car fuel taxes, with supporters donning the fluorescent safety vests that French law requires all motorists to carry.
They were angry at record prices at the pump, with the cost of diesel increasing by about 20 per cent in the past year to an average of 1.49 euros ($2.20) per litre. Macron then announced further taxes on fuel, from January 2019, in a move he said was necessary to combat climate change and protect the environment.
French President Emmanuel Macron outside Sainte-Marie-Majeure cathedral in Marseilles. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen is trying to unseat the centrist Macron, who has a slim lead in polls ahead of the April 24 presidential run-off election.Credit:AP
The protests snowballed into a wider movement against Macron’s perceived bias favouring the elite and well-off city dwellers. Workers on lower middle incomes are angry that they can barely scrape by and think they get scant public services in exchange for some of the highest tax bills in Europe.
When Macron won the election in 2017 telling France it needed to change, he pushed through labour reform that made it easier for businesses to hire and fire. The unemployment rate fell to its lowest in 13 years, but suddenly jobs weren’t as secure as they once were. This heightened anxieties.
Le Pen has tried to maintain her grip on many rural and deindustrialised areas in the past week, while Macron has focussed on more-prosperous urban areas, talking about climate change and the future of Europe as a bloody war plays out just a few hours away.
It is in foreign policy that Macron has an advantage. The rise of authoritarian, populist and nationalist leaders worldwide – Trump in the US, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia – has been a mixed blessing for Le Pen. Her campaigns have been financed by Russian and Hungarian banks but her cosiness with Moscow has been a constant source of criticism during the past two months.
This 2017 photo op with Vladimir Putin has come back to haunt French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Credit:Sputnik/AP
She has, however, profited from the loathing for her opponent felt by the French left, where Macron is scorned as an elitist for having abolished the wealth tax.
Dr Marco Duranti, a lecturer in modern European and international history at University of Sydney, says that by continuing to strengthen his grip over the political centre, Macron had created a vacuum on the Left and Right.
“The electorate drawn to the populists resents these elites, has seen its economic security eroded, and feels itself to have been the ‘losers’ of globalisation,” he said. “Because of these parallels, we should not be surprised if Le Pen wins an unexpected victory resonant of Brexit and Trump’s election in 2016.”
The anti-immigrant stance that has been the hallmark of the National Rally party since it was founded as the National Front by Le Pen’s father in 1972 has been toned down but not gone away.
Macron said this week that Le Pen’s plan to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public would trigger “civil war” in the country that has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
According to the polling firm, Ifop, nearly 70 per cent of Muslims voted for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round, the only major candidate to have consistently condemned discrimination against the group. Macron gained on 14 per cent and is now aiming to increase that.
Many it seems might just hold their nose and vote for Macron through gritted teeth.
In a survey of 1600 people conducted by Ipso this week, 45 per cent of voters want Macron to win – half “because he will make a good president” and the other half “to block Marine Le Pen”. One in three – 34 per cent – want Le Pen to win and 21 per cent didn’t care.
Macron on Saturday morning AEST compared the choice to that of US voters before they elected Trump into the White House, warning that his current polling lead was not a guarantee of victory.
“The next day they woke up with a hangover,” he told French television.
“April 24 will be a referendum for or against Europe – we want Europe,” he said. “April 24 will be a referendum for or against [the] secular, united, indivisible France … we are for.”
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