Ukraine pushed Macron, but Le Pen is growing in the French election

BESIER, France – Retired Marguerite Mondobrick has watched in horror as Vladimir Putin’s military has leveled Ukrainian cities in recent weeks from the southern French city of Beziers.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a big enough apartment, otherwise I would have taken them wholeheartedly,” she said.

But if she and her partner go to the polls in the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday, they will vote for a candidate who was one of Putin’s staunchest defenders in Europe and has campaigned for years to accept refugees: far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Standing in Beziers Market Square, Mondabrück and her partner Sylviane Verne rejected Le Pen’s long-standing alliance with Putin and rejected the need for a broader rethinking of immigration. “We have to help the French before we help others,” said Verne, 60. Meanwhile, the couple said their contempt for the incumbent president and favorite was so deep that they would consider moving abroad – perhaps to an “island” – if President Emanuel Macron wins a second term.

The first round of presidential elections in France is scheduled for April 10. Rick Noak of The Post explains key issues and leading candidates. (Video: Alex Julian Ard, Rick Noak, Jane Ahrenstein, Jackie Lay, Sarah Hashemi / The Washington Post, photo: The Washington Post)

There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine is looming in this election in France.

This raised Macron’s profile as a world leader, while creating a very unusual situation in which the French leader hardly conducted an election campaign. The announcement of his candidacy sounded not like a sublime speech, but like a written letter. He held his first major rally on Saturday, a week before the vote.

The war forced France’s far-right candidates to cringe at their reports of Russia and immigrants, and Le Pen faced difficult questions about her past ties to Putin, and Eric Zemour had to explain why he once dreamed of a French Putin.

The war has also rekindled public concern about rising energy prices, a very burning issue in France.

However, Putin’s war did not fundamentally change the key course of the election, as some expected. Macron remains the leader and was even able to expand his advantage in the first round after the invasion. But the far right is historically strong, and some polls suggest a close second round between Le Pen and Macron. Meanwhile, left-wing France is still divided. The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon ranks third in the poll, but his proposals are too extreme for many left-wing voters.

A recent Ifop poll found that 27.5% of voters intend to vote for Macron in the first round, 22% for Le Pen and 15.5% for Melenchon. If the second round – scheduled for April 24 – took place now, Macron would have won Le Pen with 53 percent of the vote, according to Ifop.

“What is happening is that the tolerant left and right are disappearing,” said Pierre Mathieu, director of Sciences Po Lille, referring to failed attempts by France’s center-right and center-left parties to revive themselves after the devastating losses for Macron. in 2017.

“Macron is in the process of destroying the center of politics, but the more he breaks it, the more he gives way to radical wings,” Mathieu said. “I’m a little worried about French politics.”

According to opinion polls, abstinence may reach record levels, and street protests, such as “yellow vest” demonstrations, may return shortly after the vote, some researchers predict.

Macron will benefit from the role of “wartime leader”

When Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, launched his own political movement in 2016, he promised to bring a new style of politics to the Elysee Palace without any commitment to prominent parties.

In the following years, he moved to the right in immigration, national security and other issues, which many see as a risky attempt to gain an advantage from right-wing parties, hoping that his centrist and left-wing supporters will remain loyal to him. . This strategy seemed to have failed early last year when Le Pen was polled above Macron for months.

But since then, Macron has identified himself as a universal crisis manager, said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. French presidents have more power than leaders in many other European countries – an advantage Macron used to quickly deploy a medical pass last year, increasing vaccination rates in France and allowing normal life to recover faster than elsewhere.

The war in Ukraine has dealt another blow to Macron in presenting itself as a leader at the moment. While his election contenders quarreled on a talk show, Macron visited Moscow and held hours of talks with Putin in a last-ditch attempt to prevent war. After one such call, a senior French official recalled how Putin said Macron was “the only one with whom he could have such in-depth discussions.”

Of course, these diplomatic efforts ultimately failed, but French voters do not seem to blame Macron, who hastened to change course by supporting sanctions and preparing the French for what he said was a “turning point” in history that would take severe economic losses.

“People always gather around a wartime leader,” Dungan said. “Macron’s leadership is in line with the image that the French have of what their country should do: it is a global state, it must be listened to, it must be aimed at peace.”

“Despite everything that is happening, he is in control,” said Sofia Lamel, a 58-year-old woman from Beziers who said she would probably vote for Macron. “I feel calmer when he’s driving.”

At a pre-election rally at a stadium on the outskirts of Paris last weekend, Macron was hailed as if he had already won. Many of his 30,000 supporters waved flags of France and the European Union. The laser light revolved around the DJ, and fireworks illuminated the indoor arena.

But in his speech, Macron warned that his victory is uncertain. “Do not believe the commentators and polls that say it is impossible, unthinkable,” he said of the victory of the far right. “Today the extremist danger is even greater than a few months ago, a few years ago. Hatred and alternative truths have normalized in public debate. We are used to it. “

Among much of the electorate, Macron has been unable to get rid of their notion that he is elitist and inviolable. In recent days, his company has tried to respond to criticism that fees paid to consultants, including the American consulting firm McKinsey, rose during his presidency to more than $ 1 billion last year. This question has resonated because it echoes the claim that Macron’s policies benefited the rich and failed the poor.

“The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer, a group to which I now belong,” said Mondabrick, a Le Pen voter in Beziers. “I only turn on two radiators, and I’m always cold,” she said.

Amid rising inflation, the Macron government was particularly alarmed by rising energy prices. In 2018, the proposed increase in taxes on gasoline caused a movement of “yellow vests”, which for several months destroyed French cities and overturned the agenda of the young president. This time, Macron, faster than the leaders of many other European countries, set gas and electricity prices for consumers.

Extreme right, distortions over Putin and refugees, emphasis on the economy

Rising costs have become a dominant theme on the streets of Beziers and other French cities.

Once a self-proclaimed “world wine capital” that supplied cheap but decent brands, Bezier lost his wealth when he became the main target of European efforts to curb wine overproduction in the 1980s. The next economic downturn was fierce: it turned the rich mall into one of the poorest cities in the region.

Previously, the extreme left fortress of Beziers, like France, is shifting to the right. In 2014, she elected a far-right mayor who turned the city into a political laboratory for Le Pen and her allies. And like other far-right figures, this mayor, Robert Menard, quickly adapted his messages after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and more than 4.2 million refugees fled.

Menard, a regular on French television, has for many years spoken out against refugees from the Middle East. But he recently apologized for his past comments, saying he was “ashamed” and that refugees of various backgrounds should be treated with empathy.

At the national level, a photo of Le Pen shaking Putin’s hand is still in an election leaflet published on the eve of the Russian invasion. But since then, she has welcomed Ukrainian refugees and downplayed her long-standing call for a referendum on immigration, as well as a previous demand for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. Instead, she emphasizes concerns about rising cost of living and the impact of sanctions on energy prices.

Her rival from the far right, Zemmour, has not undergone the same evolution. Instead, he unleashed anti-immigrant rhetoric against Ukrainian refugees, saying. “I don’t want the tsunami to be emotional.” Although he condemned the Russian invasion, he withdrew much of the blame in the United States. “We could avoid this war if the Americans recognized that Ukraine has the status of neutrality,” he said.

Adhering to both positions, Zemmour made Le Pen look more tolerant. Although it lost to Macron in 2017 – 33.9 percent vs. 66.1 percent – now it seems to be heading for a more competitive final round.

“It would be a historic record for the far right in France,” said Gilles Ivaldi, a researcher at the French National Center for Research and Science in Paris.

Left-wing voters are undecided and unconvinced

In the past, French parties and their voters would unite to prevent the victory of the far right. But that “republican front” has collapsed in recent years.

Florence Iovina, 62, calls herself a left-wing voter, but she said she would not vote for Macron – even if it means the far right will gain power.

“It has become normal that we vote like this – that in the second round we are forced to vote against our own beliefs, just to prevent something that would be even worse,” she said, walking a dog in Montpellier, on the left. -tilted bastion near Beziers. This time she said, “If I don’t like the choice, I’ll vote empty.”

Montpellier is one of the cities that the French left has long hoped to unite its voters. Its bustling bars and cafes are filled with students, and local voters have elected a mayor who has promised to make the city greener and public transportation free. Theoretically Montpellier should be resolutely in favor of the left in this campaign.

But in the main square last week, most people said they were undecided and unconvinced. The Socialist Party, whose presidents have ruled France for two of the last four decades, now stands at 2 percent. Many moderate left-wing voters have not forgiven the party for what they see as a disastrous outcome under its last president, Francois Hollande.

The 42-year-old left-wing voter Linda Umoh said she regretted that the war in Ukraine had overshadowed the campaign. “Various candidates running could not speak,” she said.

The best left-wing candidate Melanchon would have the best chance of reaching the second round. But many left-wing voters in Montpellier have said they consider his proposals too extreme.

A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Melenchon reiterated his offer to withdraw from France, calling the organization a “useless” alliance.

Umo said these comments and other suggestions have so far prevented her from seriously considering Melenchon as a possible choice.

“The left is in a period of great fragility,” admitted the mayor of Montpellier from the Socialist Party, Mikhail Delafos. “It is clear that a strong wind is blowing across the country.”

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