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How Marine Le Pen closed the gap on Emmanuel Macron

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron can’t rest easy just yet — Marine Le Pen is inching closer.

With just days to go before France heads to the polls for the first round of the presidential ballot, a new survey by Harris Interactive this week shows the far-right Le Pen could fall just 3 percentage points behind the incumbent leader in the second, decisive round.

Support for Le Pen has also continued to grow in surveys of first-round voting intentions over the past two weeks, while Macron has lost ground.

Opinion polls across the board still predict a win for Macron, with Le Pen trailing the president by on average 8 percentage points in second-round voting intentions, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. 

But the figures forecast are still too close for comfort for Macron just a few days from the election and reveal just how effective Le Pen’s tactics have been: Analysts say the far-right leader has narrowed the gap through a mix of smart messaging and relentless on-the-ground campaigning.

And while there has yet to be a single poll projecting a Le Pen victory this time, having the far-right politician come in second place to Macron with such a narrow margin would still mark a major shift in the political landscape. 

In 2017, Macron triumphed over Le Pen with 66 percent of the votes in the second round, almost twice the support for Le Pen, who won about 34 percent. Polls at the time had predicted both scores relatively accurately, crediting Macron with more than 60 percent of voting intentions in second-round polling, days ahead of the first round.

FRANCE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Above the fray vs. on the campaign trail

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine monopolizing the public debate in France over the last month, Macron’s race to reelection seemed unstoppable. The president stood out from his rivals as the only candidate with foreign affairs chops and the experience to lead the country through the current crisis.

But there is something Macron hasn’t done enough: actual campaigning. The president has barely hit the campaign trail and has been accused of using the war in Ukraine to avoid going head-to-head with his rival candidates by refusing to partake in traditional televised debates.

While Macron was busy talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin and meeting world leaders, Le Pen continued her campaign in La France profonde (deep France) hammering on about everyday life problems such as the price of fuel and people’s purchasing power.

“Le Pen did a proximity campaign, visiting a lot of small towns and villages. Her trips were not very much covered by national press but had a big echo in local media,” said Mathieu Gallard, research director at polling firm Ipsos. “She gave an impression of proximity, which is very important for French voters.”

At the same time, unlike her far-right rival Eric Zemmour, she has avoided getting stuck in a debate on the Ukrainian war that may have put her on the back foot given her long-standing ties with Putin.

“I did my campaign in a serious way. I have been on the field for more than six months now, I have brought up all the subjects preoccupying the French people,” Le Pen said in a radio interview on Tuesday. “Others didn’t campaign, it’s a choice,” she added, accusing Macron of not fully taking part in the campaign and criticizing him for declaring his candidacy at the very last moment.

Macron waited until last month to officially confirm he would run for reelection, though the opposition accused him of actually campaigning even before that announcement. Since then, he has held a limited number of campaign events, including a four-hour press conference, a visit to Dijon and a big rally in Paris last weekend.

Marine 2.0

Le Pen’s comeback may also be attributable to her change in script from the 2017 campaign.

Instead of focusing on migration and security issues, Le Pen has fine-tuned her economic platform and campaigned on reducing the cost of living.

“She really broke with the style of her previous campaigns and her father’s campaigns. She did a campaign focused on purchasing power and not on migration and security,” said Gallard.

Economic problems are by far French voters’ main concern, far more important than the environment or migration, polls say. This week’s Harris Interactive poll shows that, according to French voters, Le Pen is more credible than Macron when it comes to guaranteeing their purchasing power. 

That shows she’s come a long way since 2017 when then-candidate Macron cornered Le Pen during a TV debate on economic issues, and her disastrous performance severely damaged her credibility: She dropped her push for France to leave the EU and the eurozone not long after that.

Instead, she is now campaigning on measures to cut skyrocketing energy prices.

Back in February, Le Pen pitched her economic program to French business leaders at an event with other candidates organized by the business lobby MEDEF. After the event, one of them told POLITICO that Le Pen performed better than the others (except for Macron, who did not attend the event) and noted that the far-right candidate had sharpened her economic proposals compared with the previous campaign.

Le Pen has also managed to soften her image, something she’s tried to do unsuccessfully for years. She was helped in this effort by standing in comparison to anti-immigration hard-liner Zemmour, who has been convicted three times for inciting hatred and whose past misogynistic comments have come back to haunt him during the campaign. While 65 percent of the French say they are “worried” about Zemmour, 51 percent say the same about Le Pen, an Ipsos survey shows.

And while that doesn’t look set to be enough to get her to the Elysée for now, Le Pen is giving Macron a run for his money.

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