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Macron, Le Pen poised for French presidency runoff repeat

France's President Emmanuel Macron seems to be headed for another runoff with the far right's Marine Le Pen in a race overshadowed by the Ukraine war. Unlike five years ago, polls suggest Le Pen has a chance to win.

(CN) — French voters go to the polls on Sunday in a tight presidential race that seems destined to once again star President Emmanuel Macron in a second-round runoff with Marine Le Pen, the mellowed far-right leader whose chances of a shocking upset victory are on the rise.

Voters will cast ballots in a crowded field spanning the spectrum of political persuasions and pick two candidates to send onto a second-round runoff set for April 24, a Sunday.

The campaign has been largely muted by the horrific events in Ukraine, making it awkward and discomforting for the candidates to hold jubilant rallies and perform the usual political antics.

Macron held his first — and only — big rally last Saturday in a packed Paris concert hall where about 30,000 supporters showed up. It was seen — and mocked by some — as an American-style event with fireworks, light shows, pulsing music and multiplex television screens with Macron entering the forum clutching at outstretched hands.

He used the rally to arouse fears over the threat of a Le Pen presidency, though he did not mention his far-right rival by name.

“My friends, as you understand, we must mobilize now,” Macron said. “The fight is now. It's the fight of progress against retreat. The fight for patriotism and for Europe against the nationalists.”

Macron has been on the top of polls since last July despite a rocky first term that saw deep voter dissatisfaction as well as massive protests by the so-called “yellow vests” largely derail his ambitious pro-business neoliberal agenda to overhaul French government and society.

A large screen displays the picture of French President Emmanuel Macron during a rally in Paris on April 2, 2022. France's first round of the presidential election will take place on April 10, with a presidential runoff on April 24 if no candidate wins outright. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

In his first year as president, Macron was able to push through tax cuts on wealth and he made it easier to fire workers. There is some evidence his pro-business policies helped boost French tech companies and put a dent in unemployment. With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Macron switched to big government spending to keep the country on track.

But France, like the rest of Europe, is in the midst of tough economic headwinds caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. French voters are very worried about inflation, and Le Pen has made diminishing purchasing power the focus of her campaign. Meanwhile Macron has seen whatever bump in polls he had at the outset of Ukraine war, when he was Europe's chief diplomat in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, fizzle.

Dissatisfaction with Macron is strong, and the latest polls show the race narrowing as Le Pen picks up momentum along with the far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon. Voter surveys suggest she will pick up about 22% or more of the vote, about 5% fewer votes than Macron. Melenchon trails at about 16%, but along with Le Pen he is the only candidate whose support is swelling ahead of Sunday.

In a second round, polls project Macron will win with about 54% of the vote. But in 2017, Macron trounced Le Pen by picking up about 66% of the ballots and with the race so close his campaign is beginning to fret, especially at the prospect that many disillusioned or complacent French could simply stay home on election day. At Saturday's rally, Macron urged voters against complacency and abstention.

“It is no longer the kind of 30-point difference that you had five years ago when Macron defeated Le Pen,” Philippe Marliere, a professor of French politics at University College London, told Monocle Radio 24, a London-based news outlet. “The outcome of this election is very uncertain; we've never seen that.”

“His big enemy, as it were, is abstention,” Andrew Smith, a French expert at Chichester University, told France 24, a French public news broadcaster.

Recent history is not on Macron's side either. The last French incumbent president to win reelection was Jacques Chirac in 2002: Clearly, French voters are predisposed to sour on their heads of state. About 44% of French approve of Macron, polls show.

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Making matters worse, Macron's government is in the midst of an unfolding scandal over ballooning payments under his presidency of public money going to private consultancy firms to help run the state. The focus is centered on the American giant McKinsey.

On Wednesday, France's National Financial Prosecutor's Office announced it had opened a probe looking into possible money laundering and tax fraud in connection with the work of consulting firms. The allegations will only bolster claims that Macron, a former investment banker with Rothschild, is a president for the rich.

Le Pen then is best positioned to be the upset candidate.

Marine Le Pen walks on stage at a National Rally event in Frejus, France, on Sept. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

The 53-year-old leader of the National Rally has tried to rebrand herself as a more moderate far-right force than she was in the past two presidential races she entered.

Following her election defeat in 2017, she changed the name of her father's openly xenophobic party, the National Front, and has toned down her party's anti-immigrant and anti-European Union rhetoric. She likes to highlight that she's a single mother who loves cats.

Last autumn, when the campaign was beginning to stir, Le Pen seemed at risk of becoming irrelevant as her poll numbers drooped and she was blown off as boring. Pundits said her revamp as a middle-of-the-road candidate was causing her hard-right, working-class, anti-immigrant base to flake off.

By October, the gaze of French media and pundits was focused on the eccentric candidacy of Eric Zemmour, a far-right writer and television personality. He soon entered the race and began wooing Le Pen's radical right supporters.

To make matters worse for Le Pen, by the start of the campaign in early December, France's traditional right-wing French party, Les Republicains, chose Valerie Pecresse as their candidate. Political analysts saw Pecresse as a smart choice and a real threat to Macron.

But Le Pen, traveling around France with what many said was a boring campaign focused on bread-and-butter and law-and-order issues, has defied predictions and polls show her surging in the past month. Zemmour is stuck at 10% and Pecresse at 9%.

“I got back to work, I rebuilt the movement,” she said in a recent interview. She said her campaign has been built on hitting the pavement and preparing “a platform that is thorough, credible.”

“You could call her perhaps submarine Le Pen,” Smith said. “She seems to be sort of cruising below the surface, trying to project an image of calm.”

Known in the past for praising Putin's right-wing nationalist politics and receiving past campaign funds from a Russian bank, Le Pen has been criticized for being pro-Kremlin. She's recently welcomed Ukrainian refugees, a position at odds with her past tirades against taking in war refugees from Africa and Asia.

And with Zemmour in the race, Le Pen can even come off as reasonable and centrist compared to his extremist views. He's spoken out against sanctions on Russia and is avowedly anti-NATO.

French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour arrives on stage during a campaign rally in Toulon, southern France, on March 6, 2022. Portraying himself as the new protector of old France, with bold proposals on immigration and Islam, the 63-year-old novice politician is running under the banner of his newly created party Reconquest! If elected, Zemmour promises to start a Remigration Ministry equipped with airplanes to expedite expulsions of what he says are undesirable migrants. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias, File)

“This has created the impression of moderation where none really exists,” said Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe expert with Eurasia Group, a think tank, in a briefing note.

“Marine Le Pen's far right is going through plastic surgery: You can change the body, the facade, but the soul and the core are still rotten,” Rim Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar and political commentator, told Al Jazeera.

A Le Pen victory in France would be cataclysmic and deliver a shock to the European Union similar to the United Kingdom's Brexit vote. Le Pen is associated with anti-Muslim xenophobia, opposition to the EU's supranational goals and illiberal views.

France is the EU's only nuclear-armed power — since the U.K.'s exit — and the bloc's second-largest economy after Germany. Paris and Berlin largely dictate EU affairs.

These French presidential elections are the most important election on this year's European political calendar and will help set the direction for the EU's future.

Europe's other powerhouse, Germany, held elections last September, and the new government in Berlin — an odd mixture of the old school center-left Social Democrats, Greens and pro-business Free Democrats — is rewriting German politics by pushing to rebuild Germany's military strength, cutting off Russia from European markets and planning to speed up renewable energy production.

A Macron reelection likely would complement the direction taken by the new German government and deepen European integration and federalization, a process that could see the EU building a more unified military and force richer countries to take on the heavy debt burdens of members like Greece, Italy and Spain.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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