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On the presidential campaign trail, competing visions of France emerge

France's President and French liberal party La Republique en Marche (LREM) candidate to his succession Emmanuel Macron (3rdL) waves to supporters during a one-day campaign visit in Hauts-de-France region, in Carvin, northern France, on April 11, 2022. - Emmanuel Macron and his rival French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) presidential candidate have kicked off a final fortnight of bruising campaigning for the French presidency in a run-off that polls predict risks being tight. (Photo by BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BENOIT TESSIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
France's President and French liberal party La Republique en Marche (LREM) candidate to his succession Emmanuel Macron waves to supporters during a one-day campaign visit in Hauts-de-France region, in Carvin, northern France, on April 11, 2022.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who hardly campaigned ahead of the first round of voting, hit the campaign trail early Monday morning following Sunday's results that showed him leading his rival Marine Le Pen by just five percentage points, with 27.6% of the vote. Macron has two weeks to persuade the French to give him another term, rather than gamble the future of the country on what many say is Le Pen's extremist vision.

Macron's first stop was the northern town of Denain, which has the distinction of being the poorest municipality in France. Television footage showed the president in shirt sleeves, talking and meeting with people in this blighted former coal mining region of France.

"Don't forget about us in down and out France," one man pleaded with Macron. Denain voted for Le Pen 41% in the first round, compared to 17% for Macron.

Macron and Le Pen faced each other in the runoff five years ago and Macron beat her handily, attracting 66% of the vote. But much has changed since 2017.

While Macron is still predicted to win in the second round, the margin is much smaller, and analysts say Marine Le Pen has a real chance this time. There are several reasons for this. One is the French electorate in general has moved to the right.

Le Pen has enlarged her support base, and more voters are choosing the extremes. The mainstream left and right has all but disappeared. The parties of Charles DeGaulle and Francois Mitterrand barely reached 5% this time.

More than 50% of votes in this past weekend's first round went to extremists. Some analysts say there are now three voting blocs: centrist, far left and far right. Others say the right left divide has disappeared, and is replaced by a new paradigm, globalist vs sovereigntist.

On a personal level, Le Pen has softened her image and detoxified her party to appear more mainstream. It's worked partly because another even further-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, has been the one whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, while Le Pen has stuck to bread-and-butter economic issues such as purchasing power. That paid off, said 26-year-old supporter David, who prefers not to give his last name.

"She has been campaigning on the ground, going to markets, meeting people across France," he said. "This is why she got so many votes in the first round. And this is why she will win in two weeks."

Macron is no longer the political wunderkind of five years ago. Au contraire, there is a deep resentment of him in many quarters throughout the country. Those on the left who voted for him feel betrayed, and he's generally perceived as an arrogant, elitist whose policies favor the rich. "Anybody but Macron" has become a mantra for some.

Le Pen can expect to pick up far right candidate Zemmour's voters; he finished the race in fourth place with 7% of the vote. Macron, meanwhile, has no deep well of voters to tap into.

Far-left firebrand Jean Luc Melenchon, who came in third place just behind Le Pen, told his supporters that "not one single vote can go to Madame Le Pen." Yet he did not endorse Macron. Both Macron and Le Pen are now vying for his voters.

It is not far-fetched to imagine Melenchon's voters potentially supporting Le Pen. The French far-left and far-right have similar socioeconomic platforms - support for the working class and hatred of a globalized capitalist system they say benefits elites and corporations.

Pollster Brice Teinturier told France 2 News that the battle between Macron and Le Pen is really about a battle of two distinct visions of France.

"We have the France of those doing well, they're confident they have high salaries and they vote massively for Macron," he said. "And the other France with low salaries, worries for its future. And they can barely make ends meet. They vote Le Pen."

Martin Quencez, deputy director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, said French voters' choice on April 24 will have deep consequences in France and on the world stage.

"The vision – especially in foreign policy – that Marine Le Pen promotes is extremely different from the one that Emmanuel Macron supports," he said.

Quencez said despite Le Pen trying to normalize her image and cut some of the most controversial slogans from her program, the details of her platform haven't actually changed that much. "It is still about withdrawing from NATO's military command, and rethinking France's partnership with the EU, with the U.S. and with Russia."

Macron will be hammering home that message over the next two weeks: how a vote for Le Pen will be a vote to take France in a dangerous new direction. A Macron campaign ad shows a half Le Pen half (Russian President Vladimir) Putin face, with a quote from Le Pen speaking with a journalist dated March 31. "Can Putin become an ally of the West again?" asked the reporter.

"Of course," Le Pen said. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.