France heads to the polls as Macron faces his biggest threat yet

France heads to the polls as Macron faces his biggest threat yet

A political rally before the first round of the French presidential election.

Sylvain Lefevre | Getty Images News | Getty Images

French voters are heading to the polls Sunday in an election where the cost of living and the war in Ukraine dominated the political debate.

Opinion polls from the week before the first round of the presidential election showed a narrower gap between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and far-right party leader Marine Le Pen, who is running for the third time. The two are poised to dispute the second, and final, round of the vote on April 24.

Support for Macron had surged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The French president has tried to broker diplomatic settlements between Kyiv and Moscow and called for a cease-fire while also steering the EU to take action against the Kremlin for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

For instance, last week, Macron said it was time for the EU to ban Russian coal and oil in the wake of atrocities in towns close to Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. The bloc then moved ahead with measures against Russian coal and started working on restricting Russian oil.

But the war in Ukraine has also contributed to higher energy prices, on top of a broader spike in inflation — something that his opponent Marine Le Pen has leveraged in her campaign.

Le Pen has been highly focused on the cost of living, as she seeks to distance herself from her connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her campaign staff have denied reports that they were ordered to destroy thousands of leaflets that included a photo of Le Pen with Putin.

“Macron remains in pole position to win on 24 April. However, his initial surge in the ratings after Russia invaded Ukraine has evaporated as Le Pen has exploited anxieties about the rise in the cost of living. Based on current trends, Macron and Le Pen could be neck-and-neck come election time,” analysts at Berenberg said in a note to clients Wednesday.

Le Pen has also abandoned some of her other political stances in an attempt to attract more moderate voters. She is no longer pushing for France’s departure from the European Union, for instance.

In addition, new presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has — because he is even more right wing — contributed to the softening of her image. Zemmour also takes a tough line on immigration, has focused his political rhetoric on this theme.

“Zemmour’s bid means there is a more radical candidate on the far-right side of the spectrum. This might be helping Le Pen’s efforts to ‘normalize’ her figure and make her more digestible as a candidate for some segments of the center-right electorate,” Antonio Barroso, managing director at consultancy Teneo, said in a note Tuesday.

“Her much more professional campaign than in 2017 is indeed marked by constant efforts to make her look less aggressive than in the past,” he added about Le Pen.

The yield on France’s 10-year government bond has risen since the start of the year amid growing concerns about the economy amid higher inflation. The benchmark also rose last week as opinion polls showed the gap between Macron and Le Pen narrowing.