March 25, 2023


PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is showing signs of nerves as he steps up his campaigning ahead of the second round of the French presidential election.

During a visit to the northern town of Denain on Monday, the French president made missteps and appeared unprepared as he came up against unhappy members of the public.

With polls suggesting a very tight runoff race between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the incumbent is hitting the campaign trail with gusto after taking a light-touch approach ahead of the first round.

But his first visit to hostile territory did not go well.

Denain, one of the poorest towns in France, is a short drive away from Le Pen’s electoral fiefdom in the rust belt in north-eastern France, where the National Rally has thrived in recent years. Some 41 percent of voters in Denain chose Le Pen in the election’s first round.

Hammered by locals over his management of the COVID-19 pandemic and his plans to reform the French pension system, Macron seemed lost for words on the former and appeared to backtrack on previous commitments on the latter.

After a woman objected to school closures during lockdown, Macron clumsily answered that she did not live “in the real world,” adding that schools were very quickly reopened after the start of the pandemic in 2020.

“I don’t live in the real world?” the woman, who works as a dental assistant in Denain, answered, “people will be laughing in front of their TV sets.”

The encounter sums up the difficulties Macron faces as he dives into campaigning, keen to prove that he is in touch with ordinary people and giving the impression that he is frantically trying to make up for time lost.

Macron officially announced his presidential bid only last month, and delayed campaigning in the wake of the war in Ukraine. When he finally hit the campaign trail, he held only one rally, in Paris, and went on campaign stops in areas held by allies.

Meanwhile, Le Pen started a low-profile tour of France six months ago, visiting small towns and villages and campaigning on issues that affect ordinary French such as the cost of living and jobs.

In the first round of voting on Sunday, Macron finished ahead of Le Pen with 27.8 percent of the vote, compared to 23.1 percent for the far-right leader. However, polls are predicting a much tighter race than in their last duel in 2017 as many voters from rural areas and the working classes are expected to swing behind Le Pen on April 24.

With all of the candidates on the left knocked out, Macron and Le Pen are both seeking to win over left-wing voters. Twenty-one percent of voters backed far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round and they appear split between abstaining in the second round and backing either Le Pen or Macron.

U-turn on pensions

Things went from bad to worse for Macron on Monday. The French president appeared to U-turn on his flagship proposal to raise the legal age of retirement to 65 and introduce a minimum state pension of €1,100.

In Denain, Macron told locals that he was open to adjusting the timeframe and the age of retirement in a bid to unite people behind his reforms.

“I am ready to change the timeline and say we don’t necessarily have to do the reform by 2030 if I feel that people are too worried about it,” he said.

“I can’t say I want to unite people, and then when I go and listen to people I tell them I’m not budging,” he said, adding that there would be concessions for workers in tough jobs.

But pensions are a centerpiece of Macron’s re-election bid and his hints at compromise appeared to take his camp by surprise. An adviser to the French president on Monday told Playbook Paris that Macron’s comments were not a change of policy, before backtracking a couple of hours later. The hints also raise questions about Macron’s long-term commitment to his own campaign platform.

With Le Pen offering to bring down the retirement age to 62, Macron is under pressure to offer some compromises on pensions, particularly to unskilled workers who often start their careers earlier.

On Tuesday, his far-right rival told French radio France Inter that his concessions were “a maneuver” to attract left-wing voters.

“I don’t trust Emmanuel Macron at all, not when there are 10 days to go before the second round,” Le Pen told journalists.

Macron has not denied he is open to changing his plans for reform in the wake of first-round results. But after promoting a pro-business, economically liberal agenda during his last mandate, he will now have to convince both Le Pen and Mélenchon voters that he has a solid plan for them too.


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