Few have told the story of Marseilles – France’s often maligned second city – as compellingly as film director Robert Guédiguian. The locally-born son of an Armenian migrant father, Guédiguian has won international acclaim for films which depict the complexities of his beloved hometown beyond tired French Connection clichés.
When I bumped into Guédiguian on the city's old port earlier this spring, I asked him who he would vote for if the presidential election yet again resulted in a run-off between Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Guédiguian, a veteran leftist, groaned and compared it to the choice between "the plague and cholera".
It is an expression one regularly hears in Marseilles just days away from the second round of an election in which the combined far-right has polled at historic highs. This is Le Pen’s third – and, she says, final – attempt to enter the Élysée. Macron is hoping to secure a second term, a rarity in French presidential history.
Key to Macron’s chances are the 7.7 million voters who backed far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round on April 10th. He came third overall, but topped the poll in Marseilles, with 31 per cent of the vote.
Macron remains the favourite to win on Sunday but he cannot afford to be complacent. If enough of Mélenchon’s supporters abstain or vote blanc (spoil their vote), it could tip the balance in Le Pen’s favour. Tellingly, Mélenchon told his base not to vote for Le Pen but stopped short of urging them to vote for Macron. Polls indicate that only a third of Mélenchon supporters would back Macron in the run-off, with the remainder split between voting for Le Pen and abstaining.
In many ways, Marseilles – which returned the highest vote for Mélenchon – encapsulates Macron's dilemma and that is why he chose the city for a major weekend rally aimed at winning over sceptical leftists. Macron has long been a fan of the boisterous Mediterranean port. He has supported the local football team Olympique de Marseille since his teens and spent his first presidential holiday here. Last September, he made a three-day visit – the longest time he has spent in any part of France outside Paris as president – and announced a multi-billion euro regeneration plan for what he calls his "city of the heart".
But such overtures have not translated into an electoral groundswell for him.
The politics of this city – one of France’s most diverse as a result of centuries of immigration – make it something of an outlier in the wider southern region which has long been a bastion of the far-right. Le Pen has some support in Marseilles, including in neighbourhoods that were once Communist Party strongholds. She got 20 per cent in the first round here (Macron got 22 per cent) but in many areas – including my quartier, south of the old port – her electoral posters are torn down or defaced as soon as they go up.
Since 2020, Marseilles’ city hall has been dominated by a Green-Left coalition after the previous right-wing mayor was in place for a quarter century. Much of the alliance’s support was drawn from the so-called néo-Marseillais who moved to the city from other parts of France, particularly Paris, in recent years. Mélenchon is a local parliamentarian (though some here grumble that he rarely visits). In the last presidential election in 2017, Macron got just under 65 per cent of the Marseilles vote in the second round.
Ask Marseillais what has changed since and many left-leaning voters – including those who voted for him first time round – complain that Macron has pursued economic liberalism with little regard for cherished social frameworks. Some bitterly deride him as “president of the rich”. Others resent his rightward tilt on immigration and security. Graffiti in the city often denounces Macron as a “dictator” while Le Pen is targeted as a “facho” – slang for fascist.
‘Nothing for the ordinary’
One man in his late 30s who described himself as not party-political told me he plans to vote for Le Pen because he believes Macron has done nothing for “ordinary French people” and it is time for change. Another woman in her 40s who usually votes left said she was considering abstaining in protest. She claimed that if Le Pen prevails, her party would struggle to implement its agenda. “If the far-right wins only to fail when they are in charge then maybe that’s a useful way of weakening them in the long term,” she added.
A Muslim woman in her 50s who wears the headscarf Le Pen has vowed to ban from public spaces said that while she did not like Macron – “he looks down on people” – the prospect of a far-right presidency greatly worried her. “They see people like me as the enemy.”
In his Saturday speech in Marseilles, Macron warned that Le Pen – whose campaign has centred on the rising cost of living – would widen inequalities, endanger civil liberties and upend France’s place in the world. Speaking with the old port as a backdrop, he declared Marseilles a “laboratory for the republic” and pledged to do more to tackle the city’s challenges which range from poor housing to high youth unemployment.
He promised a more robust environmental agenda – a key concern among left-leaning voters – in his second term while portraying Le Pen as a climate sceptic. Macron also took aim at those who argue there is little difference between the two candidates. “Don’t believe that the candidate you don’t like is the same as the far-right,” he said, later adding: “Choose your enemies.”