French Race Up for Grabs Days Before First Ballot Is Cast

  • Candidates ‘petrified’ as they rush to preserve their bases
  • Abstention rate of 32% is projected by polling firm Elabe

Foundation Concorde's Babeau on French Election

France’s presidential race enters its final stretch with no clear winner in sight as the main contenders scrap for votes in a flurry of campaign rallies.

“Everyone is petrified,” said Edouard Lecerf, head of the political department at polling firm Kantar Sofres. “The challenge for each of the four candidates is to seek new votes without alienating their base. French voters are like fish, like eels -- very slippery.”

With almost a third of the electorate still undecided, and the front-runners clustered around 20 percent in the polls for the first round on April 23, the race is the most unpredictable the country has seen in recent history. With two of the four candidates also hostile to the institutions of the European Union, the result of the runoff two weeks later will have far-reaching implications not just for France but for the region as a whole.

France Presidential Election Voting Intention: Summary

On Tuesday, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron visited the wholesale food market that serves Paris, after addressing a crowd of more than 20,000 in the French capital the evening before. The far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen faced a smaller gathering in an auditorium in Paris on Monday and will be on an evening television news show on Tuesday. Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, who sailed through the center of the capital on a barge on Monday, will be addressing rallies in at least seven cities on Tuesday, using holograms for six of them. Republican candidate Francois Fillon held a rally in Nice on Monday and is holding another on Tuesday in Lille.

‘Galvanize the Troops’

According to Elabe’s latest poll, released Monday, support for Macron stands at 24 percent, while Le Pen is at 23 percent. Fillon holds 21 percent, followed by Melenchon at 18 percent. Le Pen has threatened to take France out of the EU, while Melenchon wants to renegotiate the bloc’s treaties, including the one that keeps the country in the euro. Macron would defeat any of his rivals in the runoff, the survey showed, so long as he can get there.

Peter Fitzgerald, global head of multi assets at Aviva Investors, sees no need to position for a Le Pen win.

Source: Bloomberg

“They all have to try and win a point or two to make it to the second round without doing anything that could have negative repercussions," Lecerf said. “The idea is to galvanize the troops, give them the idea that victory is possible, and in doing so, bring back those who may have dropped off.”

For all the defensiveness, the four leading contenders haven’t stopped taking swipes at each other.

In his speech Monday at the Bercy arena in Paris, Macron pulled no punches as he went after Melenchon’s support for Latin American leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who have overseen widespread poverty. “For some, France will be Cuba without the sun or Venezuela without the oil,” he said.

Low Turnout

Fillon attacked Macron and Melenchon for making vague promises as he tried to continue his recovery after criminal charges sideswiped his campaign last month. “We begin to wonder which France Mr. Macron or Mr. Melenchon is talking about,” he said.

Fillon Tuesday kept up the attacks, saying on Europe1 radio that Le Pen’s call over the weekend for a moratorium on legal immigration was “nonsense,” and that it would hurt France’s economy. Le Pen said on RTL radio that her moratorium would last just a few weeks while measures were put in place that would achieve her goal of limiting immigration to 10,000 a year.

Meanwhile, Socialist President Francois Hollande, whom Fillon has accused of masterminding a plot against him, deplored the campaign’s lack of substance in an interview Sunday evening with French TV France 5.

“What is talked about in this campaign? Legal cases, charges, so-called secret cabinets,” said Hollande, who opted last year not to seek a second term as his approval rating plumbed record lows. “Events are put together, but where are the useful comparisons?”

While French voters have consistently showed up en masse for presidential elections in the past -- participation averages 80 percent over the past 50 years -- current projections show a good third of registered voters may stay home on April 23. According to Elabe, only 68 percent of the French are certain of casting their vote.

— With assistance by Gregory Viscusi

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