By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
POISSY, France (AP) — From the market stall outside Paris that she has run for 40 years, Yvette Robert can see firsthand how soaring prices are weighing on the French presidential election and transforming the first round of voting from Sunday into a nail-biter for outgoing President Emmanuel Macron.
Shoppers, increasingly concerned with making ends meet, are buying smaller and smaller quantities of Robert’s neatly stacked fruits and vegetables, she says. And some of its customers no longer come to the market at all for its baguettes, cheeses and other tasty offerings. Robert suspects that with fuel prices so high, some can no longer afford to take their vehicle to the store.
“People are scared – with everything going up, with fuel prices going up,” she said Friday at the end of campaigning for the first act of France’s two-part election drama, which ended unfolded in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Macron, a political centrist, looked for months like a shoo-in to become the first French president in 20 years to win a second term. But this scenario faded in the final stages of the campaign. The pain of inflation and pump, food and energy prices that hit low-income households particularly hard then once again became dominant election themes. They could lead many voters on Sunday into the arms of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron’s political enemy.
Political cartoons about world leaders
Macron, now 44, beat Le Pen by a landslide to become France’s youngest president in 2017. The victory for the former banker who, unlike Le Pen, is a staunch supporter of European collaboration was seen as a victory against populist and nationalist politics, coming following Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, both in 2016 .
Courting voters, Macron has some economic successes to report: The French economy is rebounding faster than expected from the blows of COVID-19, with a growth rate of 7% in 2021, the highest since 1969. Unemployment is down to levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. people gathering around the leader in time of war.
But Le Pen, 53, is now a more polished, formidable and savvy political foe as she makes her third bid to become France’s first female president. And she campaigned particularly hard and for months on cost-of-living concerns, capitalizing on the issue that pollsters say is voters’ top concern.
Le Pen also achieved two remarkable feats. Despite her plans to drastically reduce immigration and curtail some rights for Muslims in France, she nevertheless appears to have convinced a growing number of voters that she is no longer the dangerous racist nationalist extremist that critics, including Macron, accuse him of being.
She did this in part by watering down some of her rhetoric and feistiness. She also had outside help: a presidential campaign by Eric Zemmour, an even more extreme far-right agitator with repeated hate speech convictions, had the advantage for Le Pen of making her appear almost dominant. in comparison.
Second, and also amazing: Le Pen deftly avoided any significant backlash for his previous perceived closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. She traveled to the Kremlin to meet him during his last presidential campaign in 2017. But in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, this potential embarrassment does not appear to have turned Le Pen supporters against her. She called the invasion “absolutely indefensible” and said Putin’s behavior could not be excused “in any way”.
At her market stall, Robert says she plans to vote Macron out, in part because of the billions of euros (dollars) her government doled out at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep people afloat, businesses and the French economy. When the food markets closed, Robert received 1,500 euros ($1,600) a month to help her out.
“He left no one by the wayside,” she says of Macron.
But she thinks this time Le Pen also has a chance.
“She changed the way she spoke,” Robert said. “She learned to moderate herself.”
Barring a monumental surprise, Macron and Le Pen are set to break out of the 12-candidate first-round field again, to stage a rematch for the winner in the second-round vote on April 24. Polls suggest that far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon should finish out of contention in third place. Some of the French overseas territories in the Pacific, the Caribbean and South America vote on Saturday, before voting on Sunday in mainland France.
When Macron made an electoral stopover in Poissy, the town west of Paris where Robert has his stand, in early March, pollsters put him ahead of Le Pen by double digits. Although a Le Pen victory still seems unlikely, much of Macron’s advantage has subsequently evaporated. Occupied with war in Ukraine, Macron may be paying the price for his somewhat subdued campaign, which has made him seem distant to some voters.
Merchant Marie-Hélène Hirel, a 64-year-old retired tax collector, voted for Macron in 2017 but said she was too angry with him to do so again. Struggling for retirement with rising prices, Hirel said she was considering shifting her vote to Le Pen, who promised fuel and energy tax cuts that Macron said would be ruinous.
Although “Le Pen’s relationship with Putin worries me”, Hirel said voting for her would be a way of protesting against Macron and what she perceives as his failure to better protect people from the sting of the inflation.
“Now I’m also part of the ‘all against Macron’ camp,” she said. “He’s making fun of all of us.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.