Macron rallies supporters as French election race tightens

Emmanuel-the-good slugs it out with sulphurous rivals in final week of campaigning

Self-made man: French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron poses for a selfie with employees at the Rungis wholesale food market, south of Paris, on Tuesday. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/AP

A whiff of sulphur hangs over three of the four leading candidates in the French presidential election: Marine Le Pen, for the racist, xenophobic history of the Front National (FN); Jean-Luc Mélenchon for his Trotskyist background and fondness for Latin American dictators; Le Pen and the conservative François Fillon because they are under investigation for alleged corruption.

That leaves Emmanuel-the-good-Macron, independent centrist and blue-eyed boy of French politics. And even Macron was forced to deny a story circulating on the internet on Tuesday that he had an offshore account.

Macron and Le Pen have been neck-and-neck in opinion polls since January, ahead of the first round vote on Sunday. But Fillon and Mélenchon have made breakthroughs in recent days. Any combination of two could now reach the runoff vote on May 7th, making this the most unpredictable election in decades.

Last big rally

So it was important for Macron to win his gamble and fill the Bercy sports arena in Paris on Monday afternoon, at his last big rally before the vote. The 20,000-seat stadium was filled to overflowing.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday (April 18) sought to mobilise her supporters six days ahead of France's most unpredictable presidential election in decades by pledging to suspend all immigration and protect voters from globalisation.

Macron’s adversary Le Pen did less well at the Zénith in northern Paris, with only 5,000 FN supporters in the 6,000-capacity auditorium.

Like the former US president Barack Obama, Macron can be earnest to the point of professorial; his rallies are as wholesome and uplifting as a boy scout jamboree.

Macron has a habit of standing with arms stretched and eyes lifted heavenward

Macron has been brave in defending unpopular causes, in particular European integration. He is the only candidate who has praised Angela Merkel for welcoming refugees, and is, with Mélenchon, the only one who advocates greater generosity to migrants.

Macron has a habit of standing with arms stretched and eyes lifted heavenward. "Politics is mystical," he told the Journal du Dimanche in February. "One must weave the two: intelligence and spiritualty . . . I don't deny the Christ-like dimension. I don't claim it. I am not trying to be a Christian preacher."

Doubled down

Hours after Macron made his plea for "a united, new, determined, resolute, efficient and just France", Le Pen doubled down on the FN's traditional anti-immigrant policies, announcing that she would stop legal immigration from day one. "France for the French," the crowd chanted at the Zénith, taking up a slogan from the era of Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie.

Macron's rallies are the only ones where supporters brandish European flags. Jean-Luc (55), a development aid expert from Brittany, joined Macron's movement En Marche!! on April 6th, 2016, the day it was founded.

"Europe was the first reason," he said. "I don't want us to destroy what has been constructed."

If we are going to build together, we have to find things in common

Macron’s gospel is one of renewal, a word he uses more than any other. At age 39, he is by far the youngest candidate.

"We've changed centuries," Jean-Luc said. "Emmanuel Macron is best able to understand what is happening in the world."

“Génération Macron!” the crowd chanted at Bercy.

‘Build together’

“I’ve been reproached for agreeing with my opponents,” Macron said. “I’m proud of it, because if we are going to build together, we have to find things in common. We must find what is good and just.”

Pious sentiments did not prevent Macron getting in a few digs at Mélenchon, Fillon and Le Pen.

I chose liberty <em>and</em> equality, growth <em>and</em> solidarity, business <em>and</em> employees

“For some, France will be Cuba without the sun or Venezuela without petroleum,” he said, targeting Mélenchon. “Others would like to lock us into a simple choice: Margaret Thatcher or Trotsky, Fidel Castro or [the historical far-right monarchist Charles] Maurras,” he said.

Macron's frequent use of the phrase en même temps ("on the other hand") has led to criticism of his alleged ambiguity. "Yes," he said, "I chose liberty and equality, growth and solidarity, business and employees."

By mixing economic liberalism with leftist social policies, Macron runs the risk that hardcore liberals will prefer Fillon, while convinced leftists will vote Mélenchon.

Property tax

Ahmed (60), a retired instructor for the French postal system, and his wife Aoua (50), an aide to people with disabilities, said they would vote for Macron because he would do away with property tax for 80 per cent of the population, and increase old-age pensions by €100 a month.

“He’s from the centre. We don’t like extremes,” Ahmed said. “He is young and he embodies hope.”

The task of our generation is greater: to prevent the world from falling apart

Muslim immigrants from Senegal, the couple said that if Macron did not make it to the runoff, they would vote for “anyone except Marine Le Pen, because of her racism”. Numerous Macron supporters said the same thing.

"Every generation believes it must remake the world," Macron ended his speech, quoting the Nobel laureate Albert Camus. "The task of our generation is greater: to prevent the world from falling apart."

Macron said he was ready, with his wife Brigitte "at my side". The image of Brigitte Macron, her face bathed in tears, was projected onto the giant screen. "Brigitte, First Lady!" the crowd chanted.