Macron and Le Pen Trade Jabs and Lean Left as French Race Heats Up

PARIS — France’s presidential election entered a new, intense phase on Tuesday as President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate trying to unseat him, traded barbs from afar and rubbed shoulders with voters in hopes of widening their appeal, especially on the left.

Mr. Macron, who spent the day in eastern France, and Ms. Le Pen, who was campaigning in Normandy, are competing in the second round of voting in the elections, a rematch of their 2017 face-off that will be held on April 24.

In the first round of voting on Sunday, both attracted a bigger share of voters than they did five years ago — Mr. Macron with 27.85 percent of the vote, up from 24.01 in 2017, and Ms. Le Pen, of the National Rally party, with 23.15 percent. It was the largest proportion ever gained by a far-right candidate in the first round of voting, and almost 2 percentage points more than in 2017.

The latest polls predict a very close runoff, and put Mr. Macron only slightly ahead.

With less than two weeks to go before the vote, Mr. Macron has picked up the pace, seeking to dispel criticism that his campaign ahead of the first round was unfocused and that he appeared distracted by his diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine.

In Mulhouse, a city in the Alsace region, Mr. Macron navigated crowds to shake the hands of those who supported him and debate those who did not, many of whom sharply questioned him on issues like purchasing power, welfare benefits and hospital funding.

“I’m on the field,” Mr. Macron pointedly told a scrum of television reporters, emphasizing that for the past two days he had chosen to meet voters in towns that had not voted for him.

He sought to portray Ms. Le Pen as unfit to govern.

Ms. Le Pen, for example, says she has no intention of leaving the European Union — but many of her promised policies would flout its rules. Mr. Macron dismissed her assurances as “carabistouilles,” an old-fashioned term that roughly translates to “claptrap” or “nonsense.”

“The election is also a referendum on Europe,” Mr. Macron said later at a public meeting in Strasbourg, where supporters waved French and European Union flags in the shadow of the city’s imposing cathedral.

President Emmanuel Macron in Paris during the first round of the voting.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Roland Lescure, a lawmaker in France’s lower house of Parliament for Mr. Macron’s party, La République en Marche, said that the campaign was now focused on getting Mr. Macron as much direct face time with voters as possible.

“The method is contact,” Mr. Lescure said, warning that there is a real risk of Ms. Le Pen being elected. “We have to campaign at full speed and until the end.”

Mr. Macron’s stature as a leader who was at the helm throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine is not enough to secure him a new term, and neither is admonishing voters about the threat of the far right, Mr. Lescure said.

“It’s not the devil against the angel,” he said. “It’s social models that are fundamentally opposed. We need to show what Marine Le Pen’s platform would do to France.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Macron was endorsed by Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s right-wing president from 2007 to 2012. Ms. Le Pen’s campaign unveiled an official poster reminiscent of Mr. Macron’s official presidential portrait. Ms. Le Pen’s has a tagline: “For all the French.”

After the collapse of France’s traditional left-wing and right-wing parties on Sunday, much of the candidates’ energy is now devoted to wooing voters who either abstained in the first round or picked Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical leftist and veteran politician who came in a strong third place, with 21.95 percent of the vote.

For Ms. Le Pen, that means highlighting economic proposals like a lower sales tax on essential goods, but also keeping Éric Zemmour, another far-right politician, at arm’s length.

Mr. Zemmour, a pundit who shook up French politics with his presidential bid, came in fourth on Sunday, and polls suggest that over 80 percent of those who picked him in the first round intend to vote for Ms. Le Pen in the second. That gives her little incentive to court them openly as she tries to reinvent herself in the eyes of mainstream voters.

Marine Le Pen near Paris on Sunday.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

On Tuesday, Ms. Le Pen flatly rejected the possibility of making Mr. Zemmour one of her ministers should she win, telling France Inter radio that “he doesn’t wish to and neither do I.”

For Mr. Macron, attracting Mr. Mélenchon’s voters means toning down proposals that are particularly taboo on the left, especially his plans to raise the legal age of retirement from 62 to 65, which he says is necessary to keep funding France’s state pension system.

On Monday, he insisted that he would gradually push back the retirement age by four months per year starting in 2023, but he said he was open to discussing a softening of the plan in its later stages, although how and to what degree is still unclear. During his first term, Mr. Macron’s pension proposals were derailed by massive strikes and protests.

Ms. Le Pen, speaking Tuesday at a news conference in Vernon, a town in Normandy where she also mingled with crowds, dismissed Mr. Macron’s concession as a feeble attempt to attract left-wing voters, and called his platform “social carnage.”

She detailed several proposals that she hoped would attract voters who supported Mr. Mélenchon, like creating a mechanism for referendums proposed by popular initiative, or introducing proportional representation in Parliament.

“I intend to be a president who gives the people their voice back,” she said.

Mr. Mélenchon was particularly popular with urban voters, coming ahead in cities like Lille, Marseille, Montpellier and Nantes, and he scored high with France’s youth. One study by the Ipsos and Sopra Steria polling institutes found that over 30 percent of those 35 and younger had voted for him, more than for any other candidate.

Campaign posters in the town of Stiring-Wendel, in the northeast, this month.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Marie Montagne, 21, and Ellina Abdellaoui, 22, both English literature students standing in front of the Sorbonne University in Paris, said that Mr. Mélenchon had not necessarily been their first choice — online quizzes suggested to Ms. Abdellaoui that she was most compatible with Philippe Poutou, a fringe anticapitalist candidate.

But Mr. Mélenchon’s leftist, ecological platform was still appealing, they said, and he seemed like the left-wing candidate best positioned to reach the runoff. Now, though, the two students said they faced a difficult choice.

“I am hesitating between abstaining and Macron,” Ms. Abdellaoui said. “I can’t vote for Le Pen.”

Ms. Montagne said she would vote for the incumbent “because I don’t want the smallest chance of the far-right passing.”

“But I won’t vote for him because I enjoy it,” she added.

Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.

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