Emmanuel Macron’s French presidential rivals scrap for survival

French President Emmanuel Macron's political rivals have tried to turn up the heat this weekend with a series of rallies. But is it too late for them?

Presidential candidates are vying for the keys to the Elysée Palace.
Presidential candidates are vying for the keys to the Elysée Palace. Most polls indicate Macron will end up staying there for another five years. (Photo by Eric Feferberg / AFP)

Candidates in France’s looming presidential election pushed at the weekend to make themselves heard over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with a re-run of 2017’s final showdown still the most likely outcome.

Buoyed in part by his shuttle diplomacy ahead of the conflict and toughness on Moscow since the tanks began to roll, liberal incumbent Emmanuel Macron is riding high in the polls with two weeks to go.

But as the president “is totally absorbed by the international crisis, it’s very difficult to be present and to campaign”, a source close to him told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Short of a major upset, his opponent in the runoff will be far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen — exactly the same setup as five years ago.

A trio of candidates — far-right rival Eric Zemmour, conservative Valerie Pecresse and left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon — still hope they can break out from the pack and take on Macron in the second round.

“Everything could be decided in the two weeks to come, they could count double,” Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of the BVA Opinion polling group told AFP.

“Four out of ten voters who say they are certain to cast their ballot are still undecided” on a candidate, she said.

Brawl on the right

On Sunday, Zemmour hopes to rally up to 50,000 people a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, bussing in supporters from other parts of France.

“This will be the event of the campaign, the biggest gathering,” the candidate told Sud Radio on Friday, insisting that “since the beginning, my meetings have touched off the greatest excitement.”

Yet Zemmour, a former columnist and TV commentator, has fallen below the 10 percent mark in some polls.

That is far short of support ranging around 20 percent for Le Pen and close to 30 percent for Macron.

The National Rally leader strove to project serenity as members of her own camp — including her niece Marion Marechal — deserted her for tougher-talking Zemmour.

Instead Le Pen has pounded the pavements campaigning on French streets and market squares, and this week urged potential Zemmour voters to back her if she reaches the second round as forecast.

“No one owns their voters,” she told M6 television, adding that “I hope if I’m in the second round they’ll join us.”

With Zemmour and Le Pen slogging it out for the hard-right vote and Macron sounding pro-business and law and-order notes, conservative Valerie Pecresse has struggled to make herself heard.

Her woes deepened Thursday when she announced that a positive Covid-19 test would keep her from planned campaign stops in western France and the southeast.

Divided left

Also Sunday, the leading left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon — polling at 12 to 15 percent — was rallying supporters in the Mediterranean port city Marseille.

Former banker Macron’s presidency has been dogged by left-wing resistance, including on law and order and economic issues, peaking with the “Yellow Vests” demonstrations in 2018 and 19.

But a political left divided among a slew of competing candidacies has yet to make a real mark on this year’s election.

“Don’t hide behind the differences between the leaders, you’re the ones who will make the decision, don’t shirk it,” Melenchon said at a Paris meeting a week before.

His hopes of making the second round could be thwarted by others still hoping for a miracle, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo — polling around just two percent for the once-mighty Socialist Party — Communist candidate Fabien Roussel and Greens boss Yannick Jadot.

The woes of Pecresse and Hidalgo, candidates of the traditional bastions of left and right that dominated the political scene just a few years ago, illustrate the longer-term factors beyond the Ukraine conflict that have scrambled French politics.

“The systematic voter who voted out of duty, the voter who was loyal and faithful to political parties or to candidates… no longer exists,” said Anne Muxel, research director at Paris’ Centre for Political Research (Cevipof).

“Voters have a much more independent, individualised relationship to politics and to their electoral choices, they’re much more mobile, more volatile” — especially given that “the majority of French people don’t feel represented by political office-holders.”

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Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.