France’s Macron holds poll lead after testy TV clash

French President Emmanuel Macron has maintained his lead over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen following a prickly television head-to-head debate, a poll has shown.

With just three days to go before Sunday’s election runoff, the two were back on the campaign trail – Macron in a Paris suburb with a strong left-wing vote, and Le Pen in the north of the country where she has a loyal following.

“I have every chance of winning,” Le Pen told reporters on Thursday in Roye, a town in the Somme where more than two-fifths of voters backed her in the first round earlier this month.

“[In the debate,] I had in front of me an Emmanuel Macron who was showing his true colours – very contemptuous, very arrogant, even in his body language. That wouldn’t have surprised anyone,” she said.

Yet Macron was seen as winning re-election with an unchanged 56 percent of the vote on Thursday, according to a survey by OpinionWay/Kea Partners conducted between April 20-21, thus capturing some respondents after Wednesday evening’s nearly three-hour event.

Nonetheless, uncertainty about the final result remained high as the poll also showed that just 72 percent expected to cast their vote – a figure which would mark the lowest turnout since 1969.

Marine Le Pen, French far-right National Rally party candidate speaks at a campaign rally in Arras, France [Yves Herman/Reuters]

Viewers of the only debate between the two final candidates deemed Macron prone to bouts of high-handedness with Le Pen but also found him more convincing and fit to be president, a separate Elabe poll for BFM TV showed.

Le Pen, who focused on expressing empathy with people she said had “suffered” since Macron beat her in 2017, was judged slightly more in tune with voters’ concerns but her far-right views were still considered much more worrying, the poll showed.

“Did she give the impression she is ready to govern?” Le Parisien said in an editorial on Thursday. “Judging by the debate, she did not dispel that doubt.”

Other analysts said the debate should be taken with a pinch of salt as only 15.5 million people tuned in to watch it, the smallest audience ever recorded for such an event.

The centrist, former banker Macron is a staunch supporter of the European Union and the kind of internationalism that has, in recent years, suffered setbacks from events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Le Pen has said he embodies an elitism that has failed most French people. Her policies include a ban on Muslim headscarves in public, giving French nationals priority on jobs and benefits, and limiting Europe’s rules on cross-border travel.

Wooing left-wing voters

Macron sought on Thursday to win new supporters on Thursday in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest region of mainland France where many residents are immigrants or have immigrant roots.

It’s a key target as the suburb voted heavily for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in third in the first round of voting but did not make the runoff.

“Things are not changing quickly enough,” he acknowledged to a gathering of locals there, promising to put more resources into housing, security, education and job opportunities for underprivileged communities.

Residents watch centrist presidential candidate and French President Emmanuel Macron during a campaign stop Thursday, April 21, 2022 in Saint-Denis, outside of Paris
Residents watch French President and candidate Emmanuel Macron during a campaign stop  in Saint-Denis, outside Paris [Ludovic Marin/AP Photo]

It is unclear if the last two days of campaigning will change any votes. Macron’s lead in polls is currently narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1 percent of the vote.

Pierre Flament, a 75-year-old left-wing voter in Saint-Denis, told The Associated Press news agency he would pick Macron’s ballot Sunday “with no pleasure”.

Calling Macron “the president of the rich”, he said he initially planned to vote blank. But he changed his mind in face of the “enormous risk” that Le Pen may win.

“If I vote Macron, I hope that we can start demonstrating the following day. We will have to take to the streets because Macron’s measures will be bad. But if Marine Le Pen wins, we might not even be allowed to demonstrate at all,” he said.

 

Reflecting the vote’s wide international influence, Macron received support on Thursday from the centre-left leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal, who urged French voters to choose him over the nationalist Le Pen.

Their appeals came only a day after imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny also spoke up about the French vote, alleging that Le Pen is too closely linked to Russian authorities to become France’s next president amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Whoever wins on Sunday will only have done so after a bitter campaign which could bode ill for their capacity to win a parliamentary majority in June and implement reforms.

If Macron wins he could face a difficult second term, with voters of all stripes likely to take to the streets again against his plan to continue his pro-business reforms.

If Le Pen wins, radical changes to France’s domestic and international policies would be expected, and street protests could start immediately.

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