Paris: With the Ukraine crisis looming over the coming French presidential election, voters appear increasingly willing to stick with Emmanuel Macron and his promise to “protect” the country in turbulent times.
At just 30 days from the first round of voting, the 44-year-old former investment banker has seen a spike in opinion polls since last week, garnering 30 per cent of intentions to vote in several surveys.
That puts him far ahead of his closest rival, far-right veteran Marine Le Pen, who is making her third run at the presidency and currently stands at 18 per cent in an Ifop-Fiducial poll released Monday.
If Macron and Le Pen do make the second round run-off, in a rematch of their 2017 contest, the poll forecasts a solid Macron victory at 56 percent to 44 per cent.
“He was already the clear frontrunner before the Ukraine crisis, and is even more so now,” said Jeremie Peltier, head of research at the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a Paris-based think-tank.
“But that could also have a downside, in that some people might think it’s already game over, that the die is cast, and they might very well stay home instead of voting,” he said.
Weak turnout was the key factor in the stunning upset by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002 when he beat out the Socialist favourite Lionel Jospin to reach the run-off, a political earthquake that still haunts mainstream candidates.
While the Ukraine crisis appears to have remobilised voters, abstention rates have been rising in France for decades, reaching 22 percent five years ago.
That could provide an opening to conservative Valerie Pecresse of the Rebublicains, who is neck-and-neck for third place in polls with the anti-immigrant firebrand Eric Zemmour, or for Jean-Luc Melenchon, the only leftist candidate in double-digits at 11.5 percent, according to Ifop.
In his inaugural campaign video, Macron insisted that “it’s not at all a done deal” and promised to spell out his plans for a second term despite frenzied efforts to mediate an end to the Ukraine conflict.
He swept to the presidency as a centrist outsider vowing to shake up France’s staid left-right divide with pro-business reforms to revive growth and create a “start-up nation.”
He pushed through looser labour laws, tax cuts and a sweeping overhaul of the debt-laden state rail operator SNCF and is preparing to overhaul a byzantine pensions system that would push back the legal retirement age to 65 from 62, his spokesman confirmed Thursday.
“That could re-inject controversy and a bit of confrontation, because that would have a big impact on people’s lives” and give traction to leftwing candidates who oppose the reform, Peltier said.
Macron’s lofty agenda and a perceived aloofness fuelled the violent “yellow vest” backlash of 2018-19, when a fuel tax hike to pay for climate change efforts forced the president to make major concessions - along with promises that he had learned “humility.”
Surging fuel and energy prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion could rekindle criticism that Macron isn’t doing enough to shield low-income households from the fallout of the conflict.
At a campaign stop Monday he surprised many by announcing the end of an annual 138 euro ($152) broadcasting tax for every household with a TV - echoing a pledge already made by most of his rightwing rivals.
“Even if he’s a bit young, and since he has done a fairly good job so far, there’s an element of rallying around the flag” and not wanting to take a chance on a new president as the Ukraine conflict persists, said Pascal Perrineau, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris.
“But that doesn’t mean he has real enthusiasm behind him - anti-Macron sentiment is still there,” he cautioned.
Macron’s opponents have also cried foul at his refusal to take part in a debate ahead of the first round on April 10, accusing him of hiding behind fears of a “free for all” against his 11 fellow candidates.
“This contest must not be stolen from the French,” Pecresse told BFM television on Wednesday, saying the Ukraine conflict was being used to “squash this election and the democratic debate that needs to be had on the state of France.”