DENAIN, France — French President Emmanuel Macron rushed out onto the campaign trail Monday, hours after finishing on top in the first round of the presidential election, as polls continued to suggest that the runoff between him and Marine Le Pen would bring the far right closer to the French presidency than ever before.
Predictions that Macron may edge out Le Pen on April 24 by as little as four to six percentage points have unnerved the president’s supporters, as well as countries throughout Europe. Le Pen, who embarked on a campaign trip to a different part of France on Monday afternoon, has framed the vote as a “choice of civilization.”
Macron did minimal campaigning ahead of the first round, but on Monday he appeared ready to engage for an intense two weeks, wooing voters who picked other candidates or sat out the first round, including going on the offensive in Le Pen territory.
The president’s first trip led him to Denain, a city in one of France’s poorest regions in the north, where 42 percent of voters supported Le Pen on Sunday and only 15 percent chose Macron. More than a third abstained.
Macron, sometimes criticized as aloof, showed his most approachable side, moving slowly through the crowd, stopping for selfies. He spent over an hour talking to voters who had assembled in front of the local mayor’s office, answering questions about inflation, the rising cost of living and insufficient pensions — some of the defining issues of this campaign, which have been amplified by the impact of the war in Ukraine.
Christiane Delbecq, 59, said afterward that she had randomly chosen a first-round candidate — by Monday morning, she wasn’t even sure which one she’d voted for. But Macron’s visit to Denain appeared to have won her over.
“What he talked about all made sense to me,” she said. “Le Pen has said a lot of things, including about Muslims, that I disagree with.”
Other voters will be harder to convince. Some of those who gathered to see the president outside the Denain mayor’s office played anti-Macron songs, and at times the mood turned tense.
“I’m here to talk about all my pledges and to explain my reforms. But I’m also here to tell you, face to face, that you’re telling lies,” Macron told a voter who attacked his track record. “It’s false that I haven’t done anything for Denain.”
A few hundred meters away from where Macron was shaking hands, 54-year-old Pascale Henry went about his day in front of the post office — and said he still plans to vote for Le Pen in two weeks. “People here are in need of help,” he said. “Macron says a lot but he doesn’t do a lot.”
Le Pen echoed that criticism Monday during a campaign trip to Soucy, a far-right stronghold in central France. “Now that [Macron] is going to Denain to see the consequences of his five-year term ... I hope that he’ll realize that his policies have done enormous harm and that purchasing power is a top priority for millions of French.”
Macron appeared undeterred by Le Pen’s line of attack, as he moved even closer to her home turf on Monday evening, campaigning within her constituency in the town of Carvin.
In his victory speech Sunday, Macron had said he wants to convince those who abstained or voted for extreme candidates “that our project offers a much more solid response to their fears than that of the extreme right.” His strategy appears aimed at reviving the “republican front” — a coalition of voters across the political spectrum who are opposed to the far right.
Macron has spent much of the past five years articulating his vision for how France and Europe more broadly need to address the social and economic concerns that drive voters to support nationalist figures. Political analysts, though, say Macron is also partly responsible for fracturing the anti-nationalist coalition, when he crushed France’s established center-right and center-left parties in 2017.
Many of the candidates he defeated in the first round on Sunday immediately called on their supporters to vote for Macron and prevent a Le Pen victory in the runoff.
Among those throwing their weight behind the incumbent were leftist candidates Fabien Roussel, Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot and — most critically — Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left politician who came in third on Sunday, narrowly behind Le Pen.
“You must not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen,” Mélenchon said Sunday, repeating the sentence several times.
Macron also got the backing of center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, whose voters have appeared particularly inclined to consider supporting Le Pen.
Although Macon appears to have a larger potential pool of voters to draw from than Le Pen does, it remains highly uncertain how many people will switch over to him on April 24.
He faces a particularly steep climb with Mélenchon voters, who include those on the left who have been disappointed with the president’s rightward shift on national security and his record on climate policies. And polls suggest about a third of Mélenchon’s supporters may vote for Le Pen in the second round.
“Left-wing voters really have the key to this election in their hands — they’re the kingmakers,” said Vincent Martigny, a political scientist at the University of Nice.
By traveling to areas that are strongholds for the right, Macron risks further alienating voters on the left. But the topics that dominated his trip on Monday — the impact of deindustrialization and high poverty — have been central for both for Le Pen and Mélenchon.
Mélenchon received 19 percent of the vote share in Hauts-de-France, where Denain is located, on Sunday.
While Macron’s handling of the pandemic has largely been met with approval in France, the far right and far left have been critical of his introduction of a vaccination pass. Macron appeared to play into the hands of his critics when he told a French newspaper in January that he wanted to “piss off” anyone who was still unvaccinated.
Responding to a voter who accused Macron of having treated unvaccinated people as “sub-citizens,” Macron on Monday defended those earlier comments, claiming, “I said it in an affectionate way.”