The French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen attacked each other in media interviews and walkabouts as final polls showed the gap between them narrowing on the last day of campaigning before Sunday’s first-round vote.
Macron said Le Pen was “lying” to voters about her “racist” manifesto program, which includes banning the Muslim headscarf, and accused her of “complacency” in her ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
He said in an interview with Le Parisien that Le Pen’s social policies were aimed at “splitting society in the most brutal way”; she would create mass unemployment and scare off foreign investors; and that her policies on the cost-of-living were “funded with mock currency”.
On Putin, he said: “I’ve never been complacent. Which was not always the case for Marine Le Pen who is financially dependent on Vladimir Putin and his regime and who has always been complacent with him.” The war in Ukraine remains the second most important topic for French voters after fears over making ends meet amid the cost-of-living crisis.
Le Pen, whose far-right party took out a €9m loan from a Russian bank in 2014 for a local election campaign, said the “violence” of Macron’s comments showed he was panicking. She said she had condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that Macron had been “very aggressive” in the campaign, which betrayed his own “nervousness”.
Le Pen told a jubilant final rally in her party’s southern stronghold of Perpignan that she had never been so close to power. She compared Macron to a “stunned boxer”.
Final polls show the two candidates most likely to reach a second-round runoff on April 24 are Macron and Le Pen, but that the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also gaining support. The latest OpinionWay-Kea Partners poll showed Macron on 26% in the first round and Le Pen edging up to 22%. Mélenchon had steadily risen to 17%.
An Ifop poll showed similar trends: Macron had slipped back from his peak of more than 30% in March and was sitting at 26.5% with Le Pen having risen to 24%. Mélenchon was in third position, but gaining. Le Pen’s continual rise over the past week is significant. This is her third presidential bid and in previous elections she had lost ground in the polls in the final week.
The last Elabe poll for BFMTV, released on Friday, showed that if Macron faced Le Pen in a second-round final on 24 April he would win with 51% compared with Le Pen’s 49% – her highest ever polling position. This lead is so small it is in the margin of error and pollsters have said there is now a mathematical possibility Le Pen could win the presidential election. All will depend on Sunday’s first-round result and turnout, and whether supporters of other parties go on to vote tactically to stop the far right, as they have done in the past. In 2017 Macron beat Le Pen with 66% after voters from the left and mainstream right moved to stop the National Rally politician.
Le Pen has risen to become France’s second favorite political personality this month, behind the former prime minister Édouard Philippe. Her decade-long public relations campaign to detoxify her party’s jackbooted image has in recent weeks paid off as she focused on the cost of living crisis.
The presence on the campaign trail of a new rival, the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, has worked in Le Pen’s favor as his inflammatory comments and convictions for incitement to racial hatred have allowed Le Pen to style herself as more moderate, even if her radical, anti-immigration manifesto remains the same and would prioritize French people over non-French people for housing, jobs and benefits.
Macron, asked by RTL radio if he feared losing, said: “Nothing is taken for granted … [but] I have a spirit of conquest more than a spirit of defeat.”
Sunday’s vote is expected to mark another step in the transformation of national politics in France. The two parties who had alternated power from the post-war period until five years ago – the Socialists and Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans on the Gaullist right– are currently totaling only about 10%.
The Socialist party’s candidate, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, was forecast to take 2%, confirming the decline of her party on the national stage. The Republicans could implode if their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Île-de-France region that includes Paris, sinks to 8% as predicted by the Elabe poll.
Zemmour is running level with Pécresse, jostling for position to take part in a rebuilding of the French right by forming a far-right grouping of what he calls the “patriotic bourgeoisie” and working-class voters. The Green party’s Yannick Jadot is on 4%.