PARIS — Leading candidates for the French presidency staged their final campaign rallies on Thursday, three days before a vote that appears increasingly likely to result in a tight runoff between President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Macron is still leading in polls of voter intent, but the gap between him and Le Pen has shrunk to five or six percentage points, for both the first round and a presumed runoff between them. The finish order could pivot on voter turnout.
“I beg you to go vote,” said Le Pen, addressing voters Thursday night in the southern French city of Perpignan, where she echoed a slogan from Britain’s successful Brexit campaign and urged her supporters to “take back control!”
Only the two top candidates in Sunday’s first round of voting will make it to the decisive runoff on April 24, with polls showing that Macron and Le Pen are the most likely to advance, even though a surprise surge of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon remains a possibility.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine initially lifted Macron in the polls, as Europe’s sense of its security was shaken. But six weeks on, support for Macron has settled back to around where it was before, while Le Pen has benefited from the fading of her main competitor on the far right, Éric Zemmour.
“What was impossible two weeks ago is just improbable today,” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice. “On paper, Macron should be reelected, but that’s not a given anymore.”
Macron, 44, barely did any campaigning, instead focusing on the coronavirus pandemic and then on Russia’s war. A politician known for big ideas and big speeches, Macron announced his run for a second term in an unspectacular letter. His first major campaign rally — where he addressed 30,000 people in 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 capacity to be reelected without having to convince that a second mandate would be important. He’s really paying the price of this non-campaign,” Martigny said.
Although it is not unusual for French presidential incumbents to avoid the campaign trail, Macron’s absence has been notable. He rejected invitations to pre-election debates with other candidates, arguing that his predecessors never did them ahead of the first round. His team has 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 the reasons she had supported Macron early on, talking about his “optimism” and willingness to “create something new.” But she also cautioned that the first round “is not at all won.”
The leading candidate on the left, Jean-Luc Mélen
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