Macron Extends Lead Over Fillon, Nears Le Pen in French Race

  • Independent candidate chalks up four endorsements in week
  • Socialist Caresche, Cohn-Bendit back Macron on Le Pen risk

UBS' Baweja Says French Election Risk Is Overdone

Independent French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron opened up his biggest lead yet over Republican Francois Fillon and began narrowing the gap with National Front leader Marine Le Pen, helped by endorsements and his rivals’ legal troubles.

Two polls published Sunday gave Macron the support of 25 percent of the French electorate going into the first round of the presidential election, two points behind Le Pen. Francois Fillon has 20 percent support according to a Kantar Sofres poll and 19 percent in an Oxoda Dentsu survey. Both surveys show Le Pen losing to either man in the second round. Both Ifop and OpinionWay daily polls Monday showed Macron the only one of the top three candidates gaining.

The 39-year-old Macron won his third and fourth endorsements in less than a week Sunday as Socialist lawmaker Christophe Caresche said that he will abandon his party’s nominee in favor of the independent and former European lawmaker Daniel Cohn-Bendit officially declared he will vote for Macron. That follows announcements of support last week from former ecology party lawmaker Francois de Rugy and Francois Bayrou, a centrist politician who ran for president in the past three elections.

“The Bayrou announcement was decisive,” Emmanuel Riviere, director of polling at Kantar Public France, said in an interview. “He is a personality with significant weight and he has generated momentum for Macron.”

The support has helped Macron recover from gaffes related to France’s colonial past and gay marriage that set back his campaign. Macron now has a six-point lead over Fillon according to the Odoxa poll -- greater than he has had at any point in the campaign. 

“That’s a spectacular increase,” Odoxa pollster Gael Sliman said on France 2 television. “Is it sustainable? It remains to be seen. Many things can still happen,” he said.

Like Bayrou, Caresche said that Macron’s ability to defeat Le Pen was crucial to his decision. He also mentioned Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon’s choices on nuclear power as well as environmental and constitutional issues. Cohn-Bendit, a former leader in the green party, said that while he likes some of Hamon’s environmental policies, Macron would be the best way to block the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Le Pen.

“This wasn’t an easy decision, I owe everything to the Socialist Party starting with my political career,” Caresche said in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche. “For a man of the left, Emmanuel Macron is the only way to effectively counter Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election. The promises of Benoit Hamon are incompatible with a large union of French people against Le Pen. That’s a risk that personally I don’t want to take.”

Macron would defeat Le Pen by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent in the run-off ballot, compared with 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent for Fillon, according to the Odoxa poll.

“In these elections there is one issue, the risk of electing Marine Le Pen,” Cohn-Bendit said Monday on Europe 1 radio. “Today the best rampart against Marine Le Pen is Emmanuel Macron. There are many things I disagree with in Macron’s program,” but “in the end what counts and it’s who will beat Marine Le Pen.”

Merkel Meeting

Macron scored another victory this weekend with the announcement that he will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in mid March. He sought to meet with Jean-Louis Borloo, a former environment minister under Fillon, in the quest for another endorsement. The meeting didn’t happen, RTL radio reported, citing Borloo.

Fillon, meanwhile, is struggling to put to rest a scandal about the employment of his wife and children as parliamentary aides over the course of more than three decades in politics.

French prosecutors extended the probe of Fillon, saying further investigation is needed and pushing any conclusion until after the election. Prosecutors said Friday that after the police conducted inquiries they decided to put an investigative judge in charge the preliminary probe “given the longstanding nature of some of the events concerned.”

While the latest twist in Fillon’s case gives opponents a continued line of attack with just two months to go until the election, the decision also suggests charges won’t be brought before voters decide who should be France’s next president.

The Republican isn’t alone in facing legal issues. Le Pen refused to be interviewed by police last week for an investigation into her use of a European parliamentary allowance to pay for party work in France, said her lawyer, Rodolphe Bosselut. Bosselut urged prosecutors to back off until after the election to avoid interfering with the democratic process.

“We are seeing a sudden rush in the procedure which relates to an old complaint,” Bosselut said in a telephone interview. “You have to ask why everything is accelerating and madame has been summoned two months before a major election date.”

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