An exciting election in France as Macron’s rival rises

POISSY – At the market stall outside of Paris that she has been running for 40 years, Yvette Robert can see firsthand how soaring prices are weighing on France’s presidential election, making Sunday’s first round of voting a thrill for incumbent President Emmanuel Macron.

Shoppers, increasingly concerned about making ends meet, are buying smaller and smaller batches of Robert’s neatly stacked fruit and veg, she says. And some of their customers no longer come to the market because of baguettes, cheese and other delicious offers. Robert suspects that with fuel prices so high, some people can no longer afford to drive their vehicle to go shopping.

“People are scared — anything that goes up, with fuel prices going up,” she said Friday as campaigning ended for act one of the two-part French election drama set against the backdrop of the Russian war in Ukraine.

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Macron, a political centrist, looked for months like a shooer who would become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But that scenario blurred in the closing stages of the campaign. The pain of inflation and pump, food and energy prices, which hit low-income households particularly hard, then resurfaced as the dominant election issue. They could send many voters into the arms of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron’s political nemesis, on Sunday.

Macron, now 44, beat Le Pen in a landslide victory to become France’s youngest president in 2017. The victory of the former banker, who, unlike Le Pen, is a fervent supporter of European cooperation, was seen as a victory against the populist, nationalist politics that were to come following Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union , both in 2016.

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In wooing voters, Macron can point to economic successes: the French economy is recovering faster than expected from the blows of COVID-19, with a growth rate of 7% in 2021, the highest since 1969. Unemployment is at an unprecedented level The 2008 financial crisis dropped levels. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, sparking the worst security crisis in Europe since World War II, Macron also got an election campaign as people rallied around the war leader.

But 53-year-old Le Pen is now a more sophisticated, formidable and accomplished political opponent as she embarks on her third attempt at becoming France’s first female president. And she’s campaigned particularly hard for months on cost-of-living concerns, capitalizing on the issue pollsters say tops the minds of voters.

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Le Pen also accomplished two notable feats. Despite her plans to severely restrict immigration and roll back some rights for Muslims in France, she nonetheless seems to have convinced a growing number of voters that she is no longer the dangerous, racist, nationalist extremist that critics, including Macron, portrayed to her reproach.

She’s accomplished that in part by watering down some of her rhetoric and fire. She also had outside help: A presidential candidacy by Eric Zemmour, an even more extreme far-right hate monger who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech, had the advantage for Le Pen of seeming almost mainstream by comparison.

Second, and also stunningly, Le Pen has adroitly dodged any significant backlash for her previously perceived closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. She went to the Kremlin to meet him during her last presidential campaign in 2017. But after the war in Ukraine, that potential embarrassment doesn’t seem to have turned Le Pen’s supporters against her. She called the invasion “absolutely untenable” and said Putin’s behavior “cannot be excused in any way”.

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At her market stall, Robert says she plans to vote for Macron in part because of the billions of euros (dollars) his government has spent keeping people, businesses and the French economy afloat at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic . When the grocery stores closed, Robert was paid €1,500 a month to help them make ends meet.

“He didn’t leave anyone on the side of the road,” she says of Macron.

But she believes that Le Pen has a chance this time too.

“She changed the way she talked,” Robert said. “She learned to moderate herself.”

Barring a monumental upset, both Macron and Le Pen are expected to move back from the first-round field of 12 candidates to compete in the second-round vote on 24. Left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is likely to exit in third place walk. Some of France’s overseas territories in the Pacific, Caribbean and South America will vote on Saturday ahead of mainland France’s vote on Sunday.

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When Macron halted his campaign in early March in Poissy, the town west of Paris where Robert has her stand, pollsters said he led Le Pen by double digits. While a Le Pen victory still seems unlikely, much of Macron’s lead has subsequently evaporated. Macron, preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, may be paying a price for his somewhat subdued campaign that left him aloof to some voters.

Market-goer Marie-Helene Hirel, a 64-year-old retired tax collector, voted for Macron in 2017 but said she was too angry with him to do so again. Struggling to keep her pension as prices soar, Hirel said she is considering switching her vote to Le Pen, who has promised fuel and energy tax cuts that Macron says are ruinous.

Although I am concerned about Le Pen’s “ties with Putin,” Hirel said her election would be a way to protest Macron and what she perceives as his failure to better protect people from the sting of inflation.

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“Now I’m also part of the ‘Everything against Macron’ camp,” she said. “He makes fools of us all.”

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/04/09/in-france-a-nail-biting-election-as-macrons-rival-surges/ An exciting election in France as Macron’s rival rises

Jaclyn Diaz

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