Macron holds first rally as France election race tightens

President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday holds his first rally of the French election campaign, with far-right rival Marine Le Pen eating into what once seemed his unassailable lead barely a week ahead of the ballot.

French incumbent president Emmanuel Macron
French incumbent president and candidate of La Republique en Marche (LREM) party for the presidential election Emmanuel Macron. Ludovic MARIN / AFP

The centrist Macron threw his hat into the election ring at the last moment and has been distracted by the war in Ukraine, conducting diplomacy from the Elysee while Le Pen paces the country to discuss basic issues, including purchasing power.

With the first round of elections on April 10 — followed by a run-off on April 24 — polls have shown Le Pen comfortably in second place in the initial stage and narrowing the gap on Macron for round two.

Macron’s 1230 GMT rally before an expected crowd of 35,000 at the indoor La Defense Arena stadium — a vast venue that usually hosts top-level rugby and rock concerts — represents a pivotal chance for the president to regain momentum.

He will make his appearance more “physical” than traditional rallies, according to his campaign team, requiring an “energetic presence” on stage.

He will address his supporters for an hour or more, it said.

The latest Elabe poll published Saturday showed Le Pen garnering 47 percent of the vote in a second-round run-off against Macron, who was projected to win 53 percent.

Allowing for a margin of error in the poll, this could put Le Pen in the zone to snatch victory.

“Of course Marine Le Pen can win,” Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe warned in an interview with the Le Parisien daily posted online Thursday.

Philippe, who is backing Macron, added that “if she wins, believe me, things will be seriously different for the country… Her programme is dangerous.”

READ ALSO: OPINION Growing apathy in France could yet produce a shock election result

‘Possible to defeat Macron’
Le Pen, who lost to Macron in the 2017 polls run-off, has sought to moderate her image in the last half decade in a process helped by the emergence of Eric Zemmour as a fellow candidate in the far-right.

While Zemmour risks taking votes from Le Pen in the first round, his more radical stances in immigration and Islam have helped her project a more mainstream image.

“We feel it on the ground, there is a great dynamic, a hope that is emerging as the campaign nears it end,” she said on a visit to eastern France Friday.

“What people said was the automatic re-election of Emmanuel Macron turned out to be fake news. It is perfectly possible to defeat Emmanuel Macron and radically change the politics of this country,” she added.

Sarkozy snub? 
But the first round risks being a disaster for The Republicans — the traditional right-wing party that was the political home of ex-presidents such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.

Their candidate Valerie Pecresse is projected by most polls to be vying with Zemmour for fourth place after failing to find momentum in the campaign.

Her big chance to ignite her bid will be at a rally Sunday in southern Paris. But the Le Parisien daily reported that Sarkozy — whose support is still coveted by the right despite criminal convictions — would be staying away in a major snub to her campaign.

The Socialist candidate, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, is struggling to reach beyond low single figures while the Greens hopeful Yannick Jadot has failed to put the environment at the centre stage of the campaign.

The left’s main hope is the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who most polls project coming in third place but believes he has a chance of making a run-off.

Melenchon, one of the most explosive orators in French politics, will address an open air meeting in Place de Capitole in the centre of the southern French city of Toulouse on Sunday.

READ ALSO: VIDEO: The 12 French presidential candidates’ campaign films

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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.