France’s Macron heads to Le Pen stronghold in search of more votes

Centrist President Emmanuel Macron took his hunt for more re-election support on Monday to France’s former industrial heartland in the north, a blue-collar stronghold of far-right rival Marine Le Pen, who he will face in an April 24 runoff vote.

Macron, 44, is vying to become the first president in two decades to win a second term but faces a tough challenge from Le Pen, who has tapped into anger over the cost of living and a perception that Macron is disconnected from everyday hardships.

A Le Pen win would send shockwaves across Europe and beyond, and deliver a similar jolt to the establishment as Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union (EU) or Donald Trump’s 2017 entry into the White House.

Macron and Le Pen came out on top in Sunday’s first-round vote, setting up a repeat of the 2017 runoff between the pro-European economic liberal and the euro-sceptic nationalist.

Left-wing voters will be crucial to determining the outcome of the election. Hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came a close third on Sunday, told supporters not one single vote should go to the far right – but he stopped short of endorsing Macron.

“Let’s make no mistake, nothing has been decided yet,” Macron told his cheering supporters late on Sunday after partial results showed him qualifying for the runoff.

An interior ministry count showed that with 97% of votes counted, Macron had won 27.60% of voters’ support. Le Pen secured 23.41% and Melenchon 21.95%.

Polls predict a close-fought second round with one survey projecting Macron will win with just 51% of the vote and 49% for Le Pen. The gap is so tight that victory either way is within the margin of error.

Even so, investors appeared somewhat relieved. France’s CAC 40 (.FCHI) outperformed other European peers, rising 0.4% versus a decline of 0.5% for the pan-European STOXX 600. The euro ticked higher but held below a high of $1.0955 hit in early Asian trading .

French government bond yields were little changed after the 10-year yield had earlier touched its highest level since July 2015. The German-French 10-year yield spread tightened by more than six basis points to 48.4 basis points.

ANXIOUS NEIGHBOURS

European neighbours are closely watching events in France, which together with Germany has driven Europe’s post-war integration.

The possibility of a Le Pen win was a worrying prospect for the EU and needed to be prevented by the French people, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.

“It would not only be a break away from the core values of the EU, it would totally change its course,” Asselborn said before a meeting with fellow European ministers in Luxembourg.

Macron headed to the northern town of Denain, which once prided itself as the mining and steel capital of France but wherein 2019 almost half the population lived in poverty and one in three people of active age were unemployed in 2018.

Le Pen on Sunday won 42% of the votes in the town.

As results filtered out, Macron took aim at his far-right rival over the financing of her economic agenda, which would see the retirement age cut to 60 for those who start work before 20, income tax scrapped for the under-30s and VAT on an energy reduced to 5.5% from 20%.

Le Pen has brought the image of her far-right party closer to the mainstream at a time when France has also lurched to the right in the wake of Islamist attacks. Even so, her softer, less combative manner belies a hardline anti-immigrant programme.

But it has been her focus on the cost-of-living issues troubling millions and her ability to connect with common folk that has proved particularly popular.

Le Pen said voters were making a choice between two opposite visions of France: “one of division, injustice and disorder imposed by Emmanuel Macron for the benefit of a few, the other a rallying together of French people around social justice and protection.”

Macron supporters and some of his campaign insiders have said he must do more to win over the left.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said themes often associated with the political left, such as the fight against climate change and the strengthening of the European Union, would play a key role in the next two weeks of campaigning.

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