PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron may be leading the race for the presidency as of now, but he warned his supporters that “nothing has been done” and his fight with far-right challenger Marine Le Pen The runoff fight will be an uphill battle. And he’s ready for it.
The duel begins on Monday after both came out on top in Sunday’s first round of votes. Centrist Macron is moving towards the economically weaker region of northern France, where a majority of voters chose Le Pen, close to his electoral stronghold Henin-Beaumont.
Meanwhile, officials from Le Pen’s national rally will meet on Monday to plan a strategy for the second round, scheduled for April 24. Le Pen summed up the impasse by saying that voters are faced with “a fundamental choice between two opposing viewpoints of the future”.
Macron faced Le Pen in the presidential race five years ago. But all opinion polls show that the leader of the national rally is very close to a possible victory this time.
Macron said he wanted to convince those who voted for “extremists” or stayed at home that “our project responds more seriously to their fears and the challenges of the time.”
On her third attempt to become France’s first female president, Le Pen was rewarded on Sunday for her years-long effort to rebrand herself as more pragmatic and less extreme. Macron has accused Le Pen of pushing a dangerous manifesto of racist, destructive policies. Le Pen wants to take back some rights for Muslims, ban them from wearing headscarves in public and significantly reduce immigration from outside Europe.
In his speech on Sunday evening, Macron said his project would protect the freedom of all religions and “believe it or not”.
Rising food and energy prices are at the heart of Le Pen’s campaign, but Macron’s team argues it will not have the financial means to fulfill its promises.
“Our focus is now on the project and the values,” said Senator Francois Patriot, a member of Macron’s party. Tactics include being “proud” of what has been done over the past five years, showing “a little humility” and “above all, some fighting spirit.”
Macron will use the next days to “go to the ground”, he said. A tour of several French territories is scheduled for this week. Before Sunday’s first round, Macron was absent from most of the election campaign as he spent much of his time focusing diplomatic efforts on the war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Le Pen’s camp is hoping to cash in on Macron’s anger over policies seen as favoring the rich.
“Everything is possible now,” Aurelian López Liguari, a city councilor from Le Pen’s party in the southern city of Sete, told The AP. Compared to 2017, “Macron now has a worse record.” He credited Le Pen’s closeness to the French during his campaign to bridge the gap with Macron.
French minister for European affairs Clement Beaune told the AP “we should not think it is done.”
The fight will go “project against project”, he said.
Noting Macron’s “pro-European” project, Bunin recalled that five years ago “Le Pen was proposing – let’s not forget it – to leave the euro (zone), to break up Europe when Brexit and Frexits were trendy.”
Le Pen has dropped earlier threats to pull France out of the European Union and leave the euro if elected, but some of his proposals, including establishing national border controls, run against EU rules.
Macron and Le Pen are due to debate on national television next week.
With the majority of the 12-candidate first round of votes held as of Monday morning, Macron received more than 27% of the vote and Le Pen more than 23%. Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon was third with 22%.
Macron improved his first-round performance in 2017 despite being shaken for the presidency by the yellow vest protest movement over alleged economic injustice, the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The election result will have widespread international ramifications as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wrought by that war. Macron has strongly supported EU sanctions on Russia, while Le Pen is concerned about their impact on France’s standard of living. Macron is also a strong supporter of NATO and maintains close cooperation among the 27 members of the European Union.
John Leicester and Alain Ganley contributed in Paris.
Follow all AP stories on the French presidential election