(Bloomberg) — French voters head to the polls on Sunday in an election that is far from certain to return President Emmanuel Macron to power.
Macron, 44, has sought to put himself at the center of European and US efforts to end the crisis in Ukraine since late last year, and only began campaigning in earnest about a week ago. The calculation was that he’d benefit from the image of peacemaker and seasoned statesman, and that his handling of the pandemic and a strong economic rebound would be enough to keep him in the Elysee. Until recently, polls suggested that was true.
But foreign policy rarely wins elections in France, and an appearance of complacency fueled the perception that Macron is arrogant and out of touch, opening the way for Marine Le Pen.
The 53-year-old far-right nationalist realized early on that voters already struggling with high energy and food prices were more likely to care about purchasing power. What was a 12 point gap between her and Macron has narrowed dramatically as she toured towns and villages, casting herself as the defender of the “little ones” against Macron’s reputation as the “president of the rich.” She pledged to slash gasoline prices and tax big energy companies.
Bloomberg’s polling average calculated on April 8 showed Macron ahead by just 3.5 points in the first round.
On her third attempt to clinch France’s top job, Le Pen has become a familiar face. Her efforts to appear more mainstream got an unexpected boost from the candidacy of Eric Zemmour, a far-right former media pundit sanctioned three times for hate speech.
People close to Macron have been warning that his victory isn’t assured. “Of course Ms. Le Pen can win,” Edouard Philippe, a former prime minister in Macron’s government, said last week.
For that to happen, Le Pen would have to build an anyone-but-Macron coalition in the second round on April 24 and left-wing voters would have to abstain, or vote for her.
Her toppling of Macron, the self-styled defender of the European project, would be a shock for the European Union on a par with Donald Trump’s US election victory and the Brexit vote in 2016. Armed with a veto on most EU initiatives, she could bring the bloc to an abrupt halt. Voter support for her means that immigration would remain central to her agenda. A win would cap the far-right in France, pointing the country on a nationalist, nativist path.
Investors are taking the risk of a Le Pen seriously, and badly. Holders of French debt have been dumping it, pushing benchmark yields up to as high as 1.25%, a level last seen in 2015. That took the spread over their German equivalents — a measure of investors’ perception of risk — to the widest since March 2020, the onset of the pandemic.
If Le Pen doesn’t pull it off, Macron would win by a much smaller margin than last time the two went head-to-head in 2017. She would likely emerge empowered all the same and he’d be left with a weak mandate that could make it difficult to implement his economic and social reforms, depending on the outcome of legislative elections scheduled for June.
There’s one more wildcard in this race: Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. On his third shot at the presidency, he’s polling six percentage points after Le Pen, and could convince left-wing voters to rally behind him on Sunday.
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