Tight Le Pen-Macron duel

Votes in France went to the polls on Sunday in the first round of their president election

Published : 10 Apr 2022 09:28 PM

When the former Second World War leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle became president of his republic, he was fully aware of the potential for a communist candidate to one day, perhaps, enter the Elysee Palace.

For that reason — and knowing the French propensity to vary their votes in an almost unpredictable fashion between left and right — he devised a clever two-stage election system.

First off, as long as candidates were able to get enough nominees from municipalities up and down France and its overseas territories around the world, all and sundry could run in the first round. Then, two weeks later, the top two candidates would square off — invariably a contest between the most popular and the most acceptable, as it were.

The system inevitably saw candidates from the left and right fight it out, with a centrist candidate proving to be more acceptable than a socialist to those on the right, or a socialist being more acceptable to communists than those from the right.

Come Sunday, the first round of president voting takes place. Unless there’s a major upset, the polls will be topped by French President Emmanuel Macron. And unless there is a sudden surge of support for a singular candidate on the left, Macron will very probably square off once more against Marine Le Pen — a repeat of the race that brought him to power five years ago. And in the second round of voting then, he easily defeated her by getting three votes for every two she earned.

But the polls are tightening.

A recent survey by Harris Interactive shows the leader of the far-right National Rally party might come in as close as 3 percentage points behind Macron when the second-round ballots are totted up in the wee hours on Monday, April 25.

Right now, till Sunday, Macron leads the field.

But support for Le Pen has continued to grow in opinion polls of first-round voting intentions.

Macron has been busy with trying to get the French economy up and running after the hiatus brought about by coronavirus. And he’s also been distracted by that little matter of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. He’s only been campaigning since March.

While he has gained support as a result of his role on the international stage, his domestic policy is what matters to most French voters consumed with the rising cost of living, a lag in wages, higher energy and petrol costs and worry over how France will decrease its carbon footprint while keeping its factories fully powered.

Macron plans to reduce unemployment levels, limit access to some unemployment benefits, and also raise the retirement age to 65. He also said he wants to focus on education and health, including a focus on preventive care.

For those on the right, Macron’s manifesto seems very familiar indeed, duplicating some of their own plans including his decision to increase the retirement age.

Macron plans to build six new nuclear power plants and increase the number of police officers.

Le Pen has tried to present herself this time around as a kinder, gentler, more caring hard right leader — a contradiction in political terms if ever this is on. But contradiction or not, she has grown in support in recent weeks, almost but not exclusively at the detriment of another far-right populist Eric Zammour.

The far-right leader, 53, is sticking to her preferred themes, namely immigration and security. Among the measures she has outlined are the end of naturalisation by marriage and automatic citizenship at 18 for people born on French soil and still residing there.

She plans to make France great again by also restricting access to family allowances to French people, with a five-year waiting period for foreigners.

But when it comes to energy and making things greener for the future, Le Pen is adamant that France cannot rely on what she calls “intermittent energies”— wind and solar power. Nope, she sees oil and petrocarbon fuels as essential to powering France in the future.

What Le Pen has softened is her change of thinking. There would be no Frexit — France would remain in the European Union, and she would campaign to change it from within in much the same vein proposed by recently four-time winner Viktor Oran of Hungary. France would also remain in the Schengen Area and there would be no return to the French franc — the euro would remain as its currency.

She has also sought to soften her party’s image since taking over from her father Jean. The one-eyed former paratrooper was sentenced multiple times for his antisemitic comments.

Le Pen’s main challenge now is to build her credibility on issues not pertaining to immigration and security. In 2017, facing off in television debates against Macron, a leader schooled in the Economic Ministry of his country, her lack of experience and economic knowledge saw her eviscerated.

Not in two decades has a French president managed to secure a second term. The indications are that jinx may be broken.

When the Ukraine conflict began six weeks ago, a comfortable Macron victory seemed certain. He climbed seven percentage points in first-round polls in two weeks.

That rise has since stalled. But now, given his place on the global stage, it seems very unlikely indeed that a majority of French voters would turn their backs on him now. That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?

Mick O'Reilly is a Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News