Wednesday, February 28

Macron lead over Le Pen stabilizes as election scrutiny intensifies | France

Emmanuel Macron has consolidated his lead over Marine Le Pen as France’s presidential race enters its final week, according to polls, suggesting harsher scrutiny of the far-right challenger’s plans may be shifting the race’s dynamic.

Six days from the runoff that will decide who occupies the Élysée Palace for the next five years, all 16 polls carried out since the first-round vote on 10 April have put the incumbent ahead, by between seven and 12 percentage points.

Both candidates have opted for light agendas before a TV debate on Wednesday that could prove critical to the campaign: in 2017, when they last faced off at this stage, Le Pen’s poor performance was widely seen as precipitating her second-round defeat.

Le Pen insisted on Monday she was better prepared this time around. “I hope it’s a real confrontation of ideas and not the succession of invective, fake news and excess like I’ve heard over the past week,” she said on the campaign trail in Normandy.

Macron also expressed confidence, telling the broadcaster TF1 on Sunday night he believed he had “a winning project that deserves to be known – and the feeling that on the far-right side, there is a program that deserves to be clarified”.

The Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader’s first-round campaign, focusing on cost of living issues, succeeded in sharply narrowing the early gap between her and Macron, securing her 23.1% of the vote against his 27.8%.

With a long push to detoxify her party and soften her own image finally bearing fruit, analysts say Le Pen was also shielded by her first-round far-right rival, the virulently xenophobic TV pundit Éric Zemmour, who distracted media attention.

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But polls suggest a far more intense second-round scrutiny of her economic, welfare, immigration, foreign and environment policies – combined with renewed and more pointed attacks from Macron’s team – may have slowed her momentum.

Some opinion polls immediately before the first round saw Macron winning a runoff against Le Pen by as little as three points, within the margin of error. The president’s predicted lead now averages eight or nine points across polls, while the Ipsos daily tracker foresees a 56% to 44% victory.

Media outlets have highlighted Le Pen’s recent call for a “strategic rapprochement” with Moscow after its war against Ukraine, her promise to remove existing wind turbines and ban new ones, and her proposal to ban the Islamic headscarf in public places.

Her team on Monday played down the headscarf proposal, saying it was “not her priority” in the fight against extremism, and also hit back at the “suspicious” timing of embezzlement accusations against her by the EU’s anti-fraud office, Olaf.

Multiple analyzes have argued that one of the cornerstones of the far-right leader’s manifesto – a law on “immigration, identity and citizenship” that would establish a “national preference” for French nationals for jobs, welfare, housing and benefits – would violate the principle of equality enshrined in France’s constitution.

The law – which Le Pen has said she aims to pass by referendum – would exclude non-nationals and dual nationals from many public sector jobs and restrict access to benefits.

It would also cancel automatic citizenship rights for children of non-nationals born in France, and make naturalization significantly harder.

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Le Pen’s draft law “would constitute a radical break with France’s identity”, Dominique Rousseau, an emeritus professor of constitutional law, said on Monday, adding that it would also “breach European law, set France on the same path as Hungary or Poland, and lead to a progressive or indirect Frexit”.

Economists have been similarly scathing about the far-right leader’s “incoherent” economic plans, including lowering the retirement age to 60, which Jean Tirole, the French winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for economics, warned this weekend would cost €68bn (£56bn) more than estimated and “permanently impoverish the country”.

Lawyers, NGOs and teachers have also criticized Le Pen’s plans to:

  • Grant police a “presumption of self-defence” and the right to file anonymous complaints.

  • Radically increase the number of prison sentences handed down.

  • Deny healthcare to undocumented migrants.

  • “Restore neutrality” to an education system based on “traditional values”.

Analysts say the harsher second-round spotlight is making it harder for Le Pen to maintain the affable image on which she relied to sell a platform that Le Monde has described as “superficially soft – but fundamentally far right”.

“The French are taking a closer look at her programme, and don’t seem to like what they see,” said Mujtaba Rahman, Europe director of the Eurasia Group consultancy.

Growing clarity around what an eventual Le Pen presidency might look like in practice is unlikely to change the minds of many convinced Le Pen supporters, pollsters say, but it may persuade enough hesitant voters – particularly on the left – to vote for Macron to keep the far-right candidate out.

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With the election likely to be won by the candidate who can reach beyond his or her camp to convince voters that the other option would be far worse, both candidates are looking to attract some of the 7.7 million voters who backed the far-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round.

Polls suggest about 33% of the radical leftist’s voters – mostly moderates who backed Mélenchon because he was the only leftwing candidate with a chance of reaching the second round – will back Macron.

Several surveys, meanwhile, have suggested that not all voters who backed Zemmour will cast their ballots for Le Pen.

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