According to surveys, Emmanuel Macron has maintained his advantage over Marine Le Pen as the French presidential election enters its last week, implying that more examination of the far-right challenger’s proposals may be changing the race’s dynamic.
Six days before the runoff vote that will determine who will be the next five-year occupant of the Élysée Palace, all 16 surveys conducted since the first-round voting on April 10 have put the incumbent ahead, by between seven and twelve percentage points.
Both candidates have chosen to keep their agendas light ahead of a TV debate on Wednesday that might be pivotal in the campaign: when they last met at this point in 2017, Le Pen’s poor performance was largely blamed for her second-round defeat.
On Monday, Le Pen argued that she was more prepared this time. On the campaign road in Normandy, she added, “I hope it’s a true clash of ideas, not the series of insults, fake news, and excess that I’ve heard over the last week.”
Macron voiced optimism on Sunday night, telling TF1 that he thought he had “a winning concept that needs to be recognized – and the feeling that on the far-right side, there is a program that deserves to be understood.”
The first-round campaign of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader, which focused on cost of living concerns, succeeded in closing the early gap between her and Macron, with her receiving 23.1 percent of the vote to his 27.8 percent.
Analysts believe Le Pen was also sheltered by her first-round far-right adversary, the virulently racist TV commentator Éric Zemmour, who deflected media attention, despite a protracted attempt to purify her party and soften her personal image.
However, surveys show that a far more intensive second-round investigation of her economic, welfare, immigration, foreign, and environment policies, as well as fresh and more specific criticisms from Macron’s campaign, may have halted her momentum.
In the days leading up to the first round, several surveys predicted Macron would win a playoff against Le Pen by as little as three points, well inside the margin of error. The president’s expected margin is now averaging eight or nine points across surveys, according to the Ipsos daily tracker, which predicts a 56 percent to 44 percent win.
Le Pen’s recent demand for a “strategic reconciliation” with Moscow during Moscow’s war against Ukraine, her threat to remove existing wind turbines and prevent new ones, and her plan to outlaw the Islamic hijab in public places have all been emphasized by the media.
Her staff dismissed the headscarf suggestion on Monday, claiming it was “not her priority” in the battle against extremism. They also slammed the “suspicious” timing of the EU’s anti-fraud office, Olaf, accusing her of theft.
One of the centerpieces of the far-right leader’s platform, a legislation on “immigration, identity, and citizenship” that would establish a “national preference” for French nationals for employment, welfare, housing, and benefits, has been considered to contradict France’s constitutional concept of equality.
Non-nationals and dual nationals would be barred from numerous public sector posts, and benefits would be restricted, according to the proposal, which Le Pen hopes to approve by referendum.
It would also remove automatic citizenship privileges for children born in France to non-nationals and make naturalization far more difficult.
On Monday, Dominique Rousseau, an emeritus professor of constitutional law, said Le Pen’s draft law “would constitute a radical break with France’s identity,” adding that it would also “breach European law, set France on the same path as Hungary or Poland, and lead to a progressive or indirect Frexit.”
Economists have slammed the far-right leader’s “incoherent” economic policies, which include raising the retirement age to 60, which Jean Tirole, the 2014 Nobel Laureate in economics, said would cost €68 billion (£56 billion) more than expected and “permanently bankrupt the country.”
Analysts believe the harsher second-round focus is making it more difficult for Le Pen to retain the friendly persona that helped her sell a platform defined by Le Monde as “superficially gentle – but essentially extreme right.”
“The French are scrutinizing her agenda more closely and don’t appear to like what they find,” Mujtaba Rahman, Europe head of the Eurasia Group consultancy, said.
According to pollsters, more clarity about what a future Le Pen presidency may look like in practice is unlikely to sway many committed Le Pen supporters, but it may persuade enough reluctant voters – notably on the left – to vote for Macron to keep the far-right candidate out.
With the election likely to be won by the candidate who can persuade voters that the other is far worse, both contenders are hoping to win some of the 7.7 million people who backed far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round.
According to polls, roughly 33% of Mélenchon’s supporters — primarily moderates who backed him because he was the only left-wing contender with a possibility of making it to the second round – will vote for Macron.
Meanwhile, some polls imply that not all Zemmour supporters will vote for Le Pen.