“Please go vote” said Le Penspeaking to voters on Thursday night in the southern French town of Perpignan, where she echoed a slogan from Britain’s successful Brexit campaign and urged her supporters to ‘take back control!’
Only the top two candidates from Sunday’s first round will make it to the deciding second round on April 24, with polls showing Macron and Le Pen most likely to advance, even if a surprise rise by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon remains a possibility.
Explainer: What you need to know about the 2022 French presidential election
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine first lifted Macron in the polls as Europe’s sense of security was shaken. But six weeks later, support for Macron has returned to roughly what it was before, while Le Pen has benefited from the disappearance of his main far-right competitor, Éric Zemmour.
“What was impossible two weeks ago is simply improbable today,” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice. “On paper, Macron should be re-elected, but that is no longer certain.”
Macron, 44, has hardly campaigned, focusing instead on the coronavirus pandemic and then the war in Russia. A politician known for his big ideas and big speeches, Macron announced his candidacy for a second term in an unspectacular letter. His first major campaign rally – where he addressed 30,000 people at a stadium on the outskirts of Paris on Saturday – was also his last mass campaign event before this weekend’s vote.
“He completely overestimated his ability to be re-elected without having to convince that a second term would be important. He is really paying the price for this non-campaign,” Martigny said.
War in Ukraine boosted Macron, but far-right surges ahead of French vote
Although it is not uncommon for French presidential incumbents to avoid the election campaign, Macron’s absence has been notable. He rejected invitations to pre-election debates with other candidates, arguing that his predecessors had never made them before the first round. His team relied on government ministers to campaign on his behalf.
At a campaign event in central Paris on Thursday evening, French Defense Minister Florence Parly cited reasons why she backed Macron from the start, speaking of her “optimism” and willingness to “create something new”. But she also warned that the first round “is not won at all”.
Leading left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 70, has put voter interactions at the heart of his months-long campaign, even appearing as a holographic projection at parallel rallies in 11 cities across France earlier this week .
Le Pen also made numerous appearances at large public gatherings, as well as more intimate events.
Since losing to Macron in the 2017 second round, Le Pen, 53, has spent the intervening years seeking to moderate his image. She continues to push for sweeping proposals on a variety of issues – on Thursday she pledged to fine Muslims who wear the headscarf in public. But she also adapted some of her positions. She no longer campaigns for France to leave the European Union, for example.
His shift in rhetoric has meant that some of Macron’s talking points that proved effective against Le Pen in 2017 – including his strong support for the EU – no longer work as well.
Macron is credited in some circles with programs that shielded French workers from the worst economic impacts of the pandemic and helped the French economy recover since. But worries about the rising cost of living – amplified as a side effect of EU sanctions on Russia – topped voters’ agendas in the home stretch of the campaign. And polls suggest voters don’t give Macron an edge over Le Pen on which candidate is most sensitive to those concerns.
On Thursday, Le Pen doubled down on her speech as a more moderate and electable version of herself, telling French radio that she would be open to appointing leftist politicians to her government. At its last rally in Perpignan, which elected a far-right mayor in 2020, she called for “unity, as an antidote to the multiple fractures of our country”.
Macron’s supporters, meanwhile, say the incumbent has proven himself as a versatile crisis manager, both during the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Enzo Benoit, a 21-year-old pro-Macron activist who was present at Thursday night’s event in Paris, acknowledged there is less energy in the campaign this year than five years ago but said that “the context is very, very different”.
“This is not an election but a re-election campaign,” he said.
At the same time, Macron, who ran as an anti-establishment candidate in 2017 and was elected France’s youngest president, is proving less popular within the establishment. The defining feature of his speech last time around — his reported ability to transcend partisan divides — may also be his biggest weak point in this campaign.
He disappointed much of the left-leaning electorate by turning to the right on issues such as immigration and national security. Polls suggest some voters on the left may choose to abstain from the election, even if it means a victory for the far right.
Mélenchon, a far-left politician who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2017, remains the only candidate among the divided French left who could realistically make it to the Élysée Palace. His team is hoping for a last-minute surge in the polls and high abstention rates among Le Pen voters.
Speaking to supporters in Lille and as a hologram across France on Tuesday, he called on the country “to rise to the challenge facing humanity in climate change”, attacking Macron’s record and proposals by Le Pen.
According to some polls, nearly a third of far-left voters would back far-right candidate Le Pen in a runoff with Macron. This inclination reflects the similarities between the economic platforms of Le Pen and Mélenchon, but also the level of hostility toward Macron from parts of the electorate.
But most Le Pen voters in the second round would likely come from the right of the political spectrum, where she competes with center-right leader Valérie Pécresse and far-right politician Zemmour, both polling around 10% .
In rallies Thursday night, both candidates made their final attempts to win over voters. For Pécresse, it may also be the last chance to hold together the center-right Republicans party, which may be on the verge of collapse.
Speaking in Lyon on Thursday night, Pécresse defiantly told his supporters that they would always prove all the “polls, pollsters, commentators” wrong.
But Martigny, the political scientist, said the expected collapse of what remains of the established centre-right and centre-left parties, and the rise of radical wings, are likely to cause a political earthquake on Sunday – whatever or the order of the candidates.
“Any configuration we know of will be a complete mess,” he said. “All the traditional forces will be on the ground. All [political] the landscape will be in ashes.