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Ukraine war boosted Macron, but far right surging ahead of French vote

Campaign posters for French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are put on display in Bordeaux, France. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

BÉZIERS, France — As Vladimir Putin’s military leveled Ukrainian cities in recent weeks, retiree Margarit Mondabric watched in horror from the southern French city of Béziers.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a big enough apartment, otherwise I would host them with all my heart,” she said.

But when she and her partner head to the polls in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday, they will vote for a candidate who has been one of Putin’s staunchest defenders in Europe and for years campaigned against taking in refugees: far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Standing in a Béziers market square, Mondabric and her partner, Sylvian Vern, discounted Le Pen’s longtime alliance with Putin and dismissed the need for a broader rethink on immigration. “We have to help the French, before helping others,” said Vern, who is in his 60s. Meanwhile, the couple said their disdain for the incumbent and front-runner is so deep that they would consider moving abroad — perhaps to “an island” — if President Emmanuel Macron won a second term.

The first round of France’s presidential elections is set for April 10. The Post’s Rick Noack explains the key issues and leading candidates. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack, Jayne Orenstein, Jackie Lay, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine looms large in this French election.

It has elevated Macron’s profile as a world leader while setting up a highly unusual situation in which the French leader has done barely any campaigning. The announcement of his candidacy was delivered not as a soaring speech but as a written letter. He hosted his first major rally on Saturday, one week before the vote.

The war has pressured France‘s far-right candidates into contortions over their messaging on Russia and immigrants, with Le Pen facing difficult questions about her past ties to Putin and Éric Zemmour having to explain why he once dreamed of a French Putin.

The war has also renewed public concern about rising energy prices — a highly combustible issue in France.

Yet Putin’s war has not fundamentally shifted the election’s key currents in the way some had expected. Macron remains the front-runner and has even been able to expand his first-round lead since the invasion. But the far right is in a historically strong position, and some polls suggest a close runoff between Le Pen and Macron. France’s left, meanwhile, remains divided. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is polling third, but his proposals are too extreme for many left-leaning voters.

The latest Ifop survey showed 27.5 percent of voters intend to vote for Macron in the first round, 22 percent for Le Pen and 15.5 percent for Mélenchon. If the runoff — scheduled for April 24 — were taking place now, Macron would beat Le Pen with 53 percent of the vote, according to Ifop.

“What is happening is that the moderate left and right are disappearing,” said Pierre Mathiot, the director of Sciences Po Lille, citing the unsuccessful attempts by France’s established center-right and center-left parties to resuscitate themselves after their humiliating losses to Macron in 2017.

“Macron is in the process of crushing the center of politics — but the more he crushes it, the more he gives room to the radical wings,” Mathiot said. “I’m a bit worried for French politics.”

Abstentionism may reach a record high, according to polls, and street protests akin to the “yellow vest” demonstrations could return soon after the vote, some researchers predict.

Macron benefits from role as a ‘wartime leader’

When Macron — a former investment banker and economy minister — launched his own political movement in 2016, he promised to bring a new style of politics to the Élysée Palace, without any obligations to established parties.

In the years since, he has shifted right on immigration, national security and other issues, in what many see as a risky bid to gain ground from parties on the right, while trusting that his centrist and left-leaning supporters would stay loyal to him. That strategy appeared to have faltered early last year, when Le Pen for months polled above Macron.

But Macron has since distinguished himself as a versatile crisis manager, said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. French presidents hold more power than leaders in many other European nations — an advantage Macron used to rapidly roll out a covid health pass last year, boosting French vaccination rates and allowing normal life to resume more quickly than elsewhere.

The war in Ukraine has given Macron another stab at presenting himself as the leader for the moment. As his election challengers bickered on talk shows, Macron visited Moscow and held hours-long calls with Putin, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent war. After one of those calls, a senior French official recalled how Putin said Macron was “the only one with whom he could have such in-depth discussions.”

Of course, those diplomatic efforts ultimately failed, but French voters don’t seem to blame Macron, who was quick to change course, backing sanctions and preparing the French for what he said amounted to a “turning point” in history that will take a heavy economic toll.

“People always rally around a wartime leader,” Dungan said. “The leadership by Macron is completely consistent with the image the French have of what their country should be doing: It’s a global power, it needs to be listened to, it should be aiming for peace.”

“Despite everything that’s going on, he’s in control,” said Safia Lahmel, a 58-year-old woman in Béziers who said she is likely to vote for Macron. “I feel more at ease with him in charge.”

At his campaign rally in a stadium on the outskirts of Paris last weekend, Macron was welcomed as if he had already won. Many of his 30,000 supporters waved French and European Union flags. Laser lights rotated around a DJ, and fireworks lit up the indoor arena.

But in his speech, Macron warned that his victory isn’t a certainty. “Don’t believe the commentators or the opinion polls who say it’s impossible, unthinkable,” he said of a far-right victory. “The extremist danger today is even greater than it was a few months ago, a few years ago. Hatred and alternative truths have become normalized in the public debate. We’ve become used to it.”

Among large parts of the electorate, Macron hasn’t been able to shake their perception that he is elitist and out of touch. In recent days, his campaign has scrambled to respond to criticism that fees paid to consultants — including U.S. consulting firm McKinsey — have surged under his presidency, amounting to more than $1 billion last year. The issue has resonated because it echoes a claim that Macron’s policies have benefited the rich and failed the poor.

“The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer — a group I now belong to,” said Mondabric, the Le Pen voter in Béziers. “I only turn on two radiators, and I’m always cold,” she said.

Amid rising inflation, Macron’s government has been particularly alarmed by the surge in energy prices. In 2018, a proposed increase in gasoline taxes sparked the “yellow vest” movement that disrupted French cities and towns for months and upended the young president’s agenda. This time, Macron has been quicker than leaders in many other European nations to cap gas and electricity prices for consumers.

On the far right, contortions over Putin and refugees, a focus on the economy

Rising costs have become a dominant theme on the streets of Béziers and other French cities.

Once a self-proclaimed “world capital of wine” that supplied cheap but decent vintages, Béziers lost its wealth when it became a primary target of European efforts to limit overproduction of wine in the 1980s. The subsequent economic decline was brutal: It turned a wealthy center of commerce into one of the region’s poorest cities.

Formerly a far-left stronghold, Béziers, like France, has been shifting to the right. In 2014, it elected a far-right mayor who turned the city into a political laboratory for Le Pen and her allies. And, like other far-right figures, that mayor, Robert Ménard, has rapidly adapted his messaging since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and the flight of more than 4.2 million refugees it has prompted.

Ménard, a regular on French TV, for years railed against refugees from the Middle East. But he recently apologized for his past comments, saying he was “ashamed” and that refugees from all backgrounds should be treated with empathy.

At the national level, a photo of Le Pen shaking hands with Putin still featured in a campaign leaflet printed in the lead-up to the Russian invasion. But she has since welcomed Ukrainian refugees and downplayed her long-standing call for a referendum on immigration, as well as her earlier demand for sanctions against Russia to be lifted. She is instead emphasizing concerns over the rising cost of living and the impact of sanctions on energy prices.

Her challenger on the far-right, Zemmour, has not undergone the same evolution. Instead, he has deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric against Ukrainian refugees, saying. “What I don’t want is there to be a tsunami based on emotion.” While he condemned Russia’s invasion, he has reserved the most blame for the United States. “We could have avoided this war if the Americans had accepted that Ukraine has a status of neutrality,” he said.

By sticking to those and other positions, Zemmour has made Le Pen appear increasingly moderate. Although in 2017 she lost to Macron — 33.9 percent to 66.1 percent — she now appears headed for a more competitive final round.

“It would be a historic record for the far right in France,” said Gilles Ivaldi, a researcher with the French National Center for Scientific Research and Sciences Po Paris.

Left-leaning voters are undecided and unconvinced

In the past, French parties and their voters would have united to prevent a far-right victory. But that “Republican front” has crumbled in recent years.

Florence Iovino, 62, identifies as a left-leaning voter, but she said she would not vote for Macron — even if it means that the far right gains power.

“It’s become normal that we’re voting like this — that we’re in the second round forced to vote against our own convictions, just to prevent something that would be even worse,” she said, walking her dog in Montpellier, a left-leaning bastion near Béziers. This time, she said, “if I don’t like the choices, I’ll vote blank.”

Montpellier is one of the cities the French left long relied on to rally its voters. Its bustling bars and cafes are filled with students, and local voters elected a mayor who vowed to make the city greener and public transport free. In theory, Montpellier should be decisively in favor of the left in this campaign.

But in the main square, most people said last week that they were undecided and unconvinced. The Socialist Party, whose presidents have governed France for two of the past four decades, now polls at 2 percent. Many moderate leftist voters haven’t forgiven the party for what they see as a catastrophic performance under its last president, François Hollande.

Leftist voter Linda Oumoh, 42, said she regretted that the war in Ukraine had overshadowed the campaign. “The various candidates who are running haven’t been able to have their say,” she said.

Far-left candidate Mélenchon would have the best chances of entering the second round. But many left-leaning voters in Montpellier said they deem his proposals too extreme.

Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mélenchon reiterated his proposal that France leave NATO, calling the organization a “useless” alliance.

Oumoh said those remarks, and other proposals, have so far prevented her from seriously considering Mélenchon as a possible choice.

“The left is in a period of great fragility,” acknowledged Michaël Delafosse, the Socialist Party mayor of Montpellier. “One can clearly see that there is an ill wind that’s blowing through the country.”