Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday hit out at his main election rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, as his narrowing lead in polls intensified concerns among supporters that winning a second term is far from assured.
Macron accused Le Pen of “lying” to voters on social policy, having a “racist” programme aimed at dividing society and showing “complacency” in her ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The president is projected to come out on top in Sunday’s first round of voting, but far short of the majority needed to avoid a run-off between the top two candidates on April 24 - and with Le Pen close behind.
Adding to the intrigue, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is snapping at their heels in third place and still fancies his chances of causing an upset by reaching the second round.
While Macron easily beat Le Pen in the 2017 run-off, polls have shown a much tighter scenario this time, with the far-right leader reducing her gap with the incumbent each week.
The candidates of France’s traditional parties, the right-wing Republicans and the Socialists on the left, are facing a debacle on election night, continuing a shake-up of French politics begun when the centrist Macron took power in 2017.
Friday is the last day of campaigning, with no more rallies, interviews or other campaign activities allowed from midnight (2200 GMT) until after the polls close Sunday at 8:00 pm.
Le Pen said Thursday that she had never been “so close” to power at a jubilant final rally in her party’s southern stronghold of Perpignan.
‘Going to win’
In front of around 4,000 supporters chanting “President Marine!” and “We’re going to win!” Le Pen promised to help French families struggling with inflation and compared Macron to a “stunned boxer.”
“Never forget and tell people around you: if the people vote, the people will win,” she said in a speech that repeatedly appealed to the roughly one quarter of French adults who are projected to abstain on Sunday.
The war in Ukraine as well as strains on the health system after two years of Covid-19 are high among voter concerns, behind the biggest worries of all: inflation and incomes.
Macron, criticised by some for doing only minimal campaigning as he dealt with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sought Friday to regain the initiative by turning the fire on Le Pen.
In an interview with the Parisien daily, he accused Le Pen of deceiving France with promises of social spending that she would not be able to finance.
“She is lying to people as she would not be able to do this,” he said.
After Le Pen called for any woman wearing the Islamic headscarf in public in France to be fined, he added: “It’s a racist programme that plans to split society in the most brutal way.”
With her party still paying back a loan from Russia, he said: “Mrs Le Pen is financially dependent on Mr Putin and his regime and has always showed complacency towards him.”
Asked by RTL radio if he feared losing, Macron said: “Nothing is taken for granted... (but) I have a spirit of conquest more than a spirit of defeat.”
Seeking to show his popular touch, he also dropped into a local Paris market, chatting with a cheese seller and a fishmonger.
‘Stop Le Pen’
The latest OpinionWay-Kea Partners survey out Thursday showed Macron falling back to 26 per cent in the first round and Le Pen edging up to 22 per cent, with Melenchon gaining ground to 17 percent.
Macron was shown beating Le Pen in the second round with 53 per cent to her 47 if it were held today - a smaller margin than the same pollsters forecast last week.
A new Ifop-Fiducial poll showed similar trends, with Macron slipping to 26.5 percent in round one and Le Pen at 24 percent.
It indicated that Macron would win the second round with 52 percent compared with Le Pen’s 48.
“Our initial objective is to consolidate our lead and to prevent Marine Le Pen coming out ahead in the first round,” a figure in Macron’s Republic on the Move party, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
Another advisor added: “We see Marine Le Pen’s dynamic, and we will need to put on turbo engines for round two... It’s not won until the end.”
Melenchon has enjoyed a last-minute poll bump and is talking up his chances of springing a surprise, helped by an innovative rally Tuesday that saw him beamed by hologram into 11 French cities.
Greens candidate Yannick Jadot, the Republicans candidate Valerie Pecresse and the flagging Socialist nominee Anne Hidalgo appear certain to be ejected in the first round.
Far-right former TV pundit Eric Zemmour made a stunning entry into the campaign last year, but analysts say he has aided Le Pen by making her appear more moderate.