France’s two presidential contenders have traded their last blows before Sunday’s deciding runoff, with polls suggesting fear of a Marine Le Pen victory was outweighing dislike of Emmanuel Macron and his record.
Hours before a media blackout was due to begin at midnight, the incumbent and his far-right challenger made their final pitches to undecided voters in radio interviews and on walkabouts, with Le Pen saying Macron’s polling lead would be proved misleading.
“Polls aren’t what decide an election,” the Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader said in Étaples in her northern stronghold, attacking the current president’s “condescension and arrogance” and insisting her policies held up under scrutiny.
“I call on people to form their own opinion, read what I actually propose,” she said, adding that Macron “calls millions of French voters ‘far right’; for him it’s an insult. I’ve never expressed even the slightest hostility to his voters.” In a radio interview she went further, saying Macron “does not like the French”.
Again slamming her centrist rival’s unpopular plan to extend the retirement age to 65, saying it amounted to “a life sentence”, Le Pen said the choice facing French voters on Sunday was “fundamental. It is in the hands of the French people. It is Macron, or France.”
For his part, Macron accused Le Pen of trying to divide France and stigmatise Muslims with her proposal to outlaw the hijab in public. “The far right lives off fear and anger to create resentment,” he said. “It says excluding parts of society is the answer.”
Much of Le Pen’s programme, including her plan to give French nationals priority on jobs and benefits, “abandons the founding texts of Europe that protect individuals, human rights and freedoms”, the president said on French radio. Her proposals would exclude non- and dual-nationals from many public sector jobs and restrict their access to welfare, also cancelling automatic citizenship rights for children of non-nationals born in France and making naturalisation harder.
He also dismissed his challenger’s plans to tackle the cost of living crisis, the main focus of her campaign, saying she “gives the impression she has an answer, but her answers aren’t viable” – although he conceded Le Pen had “managed to draw on some of the things I did not manage to do to pacify some of people’s anger”.
The cost of living has emerged as the election’s main campaign issue, with a sustained squeeze leaving many voters saying they have difficulty making ends meet despite support during the pandemic, caps on rising fuel prices, and data suggesting that all but the poorest 5% of French households are better off than five years ago.
On his final campaign visit in Figeac in the rural south-west, Macron promised to radically improve public services, including healthcare and transport, in small- and mid-sized country towns, saying a lack of investment outside big cities, in particular in medical provision, was “a real issue that fosters real anger”.
Polls published on Thursday and Friday after Wednesday’s fractious live TV debate showed Macron’s score stable or rising at between 55.5% and 57.5% and Le Pen’s between 42.5% and 44.5% – a lead for the incumbent of between 10 and 14 points, but a far closer race than the 66%-34% score when the same two contestants met in the previous 2017 election.
The narrowing of the gap partly reflects the success of Le Pen’s long drive to sanitise her party and normalise its policies, although she complained bitterly on Friday of a concerted attempt by the media and commentators to “retoxify” the Le Pen brand.
But also reflected in the figures is a strong public perception of Macron as an aloof, arrogant and high-handed leader, out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Many leftists in particular feel also he has veered decisively to the right in office despite his 2017 pledge to be “neither of the left nor the right”.
Polls also predict turnout at between 72% and 74%, the lowest for a presidential runoff since 1969. The turnout for 2017’s second round was 74.56%. Easter holidays are under way across much of France, boosting an abstention rate already inflated by the many French voters who feel politically orphaned by the two-round race and no longer represented.
Both candidates are seeking to win over in particular those of the 7.7 million voters who backed the radical left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round on 10 April who now say they are tempted either to stay away or spoil their ballots.
Starting at midnight, neither candidate will be allowed to give interviews, distribute flyers or hold campaign events until polling stations close on Sunday evening and initial estimates of results start coming in.
Polls will open on Sunday at 8am and close at 7pm across most of France and 8pm in major cities. Voting opens on Saturday in France’s overseas territories.