French President Emmanuel Macron called on tens of thousands of cheering but increasingly nervous supporters to help him win the “battle between progress and turning back” at his first campaign rally just a week before the first round of the 2022 presidential election.
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According to polls, far-right rival Marine Le Pen is gathering momentum and threatening what once seemed an almost unassailable position of strength for Macron, a pro-business centrist elected in 2017.
“The mobilisation is now, the battle is now!” Macron said near the end of a two-and-a-half hour speech at a stadium west of Paris. “It’s a battle between progress and turning back, a battle between patriotism and Europe, and nationalism.”
The 44-year-old drew an estimated 30,000 people for a gathering styled on sports events that saw Macron enter the room to pumping music and fireworks before taking a stage set up like a boxing ring in the middle of the floor.
Macron started his speech with a long list of accomplishments and promises to create jobs in hospitals and nursing homes, in a clear attempt to convince centre-left voters that pollsters say could abstain.
“Our lives, their lives, are worth more than profits,” he told the crowd, stealing a well-known anti-capitalist slogan.
In a bid to galvanise his supporters as well as undecided voters, Macron warned of the risk of a Brexit-style upset as polls showed the race between the incumbent and Le Pen tightening for the crucial April 24 runoff.
“Look at what happened with Brexit, and so many other elections: what looked improbable actually happened,” Macron told the crowd of flag-waving supporters. “Nothing is impossible,” he warned.
“The danger of extremism has reached new heights because, in recent months and years, hatred, alternative truths have been normalised,” he said. “We have got used to seeing on TV shows antisemitic and racist authors.”
Distracted by the war in Ukraine
The centrist French president only declared his intention to run again at the last possible moment last month and has been distracted by the war in Ukraine.
Sunday’s rally was crucial for Macron to display his engagement with the electorate after the diplomatic pressures of the war in Ukraine limited his canvassing at home, explained Ariane Bogain from Northumbria University in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“So far, he’s been more or less invisible and this rally is his chance to finally enter the competition and he has to do it because we’ve seen recently that his advantage in the polls has diminished. He’s still leading, but he has to be far more present. He only has a week and this rally is very, very important,” said Bogain.
Le Pen meanwhile has been working on a low-key grassroots campaign focused on concerns about rising prices that have dented household incomes.
“Despite the crises, we never gave up. Despite the crises we honoured our promises,” Macron said during the first part of a speech that defended his achievements.
He listed them as lowering unemployment to “its lowest level in 15 years”, cutting taxes to boost incomes and making investments in public services.
To shouts of “Macron, president!” he also detailed his programme for a second term that would include benefits reform and a rise in the retirement age to 65.
Among those present, most expressed confidence that Macron would prevail despite the final-week dynamic that appears to be favouring Le Pen.
Two new polls published Saturday suggested Macron and Le Pen would finish top in the first round on April 10, with Macron triumphing in the run-off on April 24 by 53-47 percent.
“Of course Marine Le Pen can win,” Macron’s former prime minister Édouard Philippe warned in an interview with the Le Parisien daily posted online Thursday.
The increasingly thin margin of victory projected for Macron has led many supporters to call on him to throw himself more into campaigning, with aides promising stops around the country next week.
Macron’s opponents have been attacking him relentlessly on the basis of record spending on consultants such as McKinsey during his five-year term, which was revealed in an investigation by the Senate last month.
Le Pen optimism
Le Pen, who lost to Macron in the 2017 vote runoff, has sought to moderate her image in the last half-decade in a process helped by the emergence of Eric Zemmour as a fellow candidate on the far right.
While Zemmour risks taking votes from Le Pen in the first round, his more radical stances in immigration and Islam have helped her project a more mainstream image.
“We feel it on the ground, there is a great dynamic, a hope that is emerging as the campaign nears its end,” she said on a visit to eastern France Friday.
The first round risks being a disaster for Les Republicains — the traditional right-wing party that was the political home of ex-presidents such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.
Their candidate Valérie Pécresse is projected by most polls to be vying with Zemmour for fourth place after failing to find momentum in the campaign.
Her big chance to ignite her bid will be at a rally Sunday in southern Paris.
The Socialist candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, is struggling to reach beyond low single figures while the Greens hopeful Yannick Jadot has failed to put the environment at the centre stage of the campaign.
The left’s main hope is the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon who most polls project coming in third place but believes he has a chance of making the runoff.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
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