By Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) – In the final days of campaigning before Sunday’s first round of the French election, President Emmanuel Macron is making a sudden swerve to the left to mobilise voters who used to vote for the Socialists and who he fears could stay home on voting day.
Macron, who has spent the past five years wooing the centre-right after demolishing the Socialist party and attracting most of its voters in 2017, is suddenly correcting course, as opinion polls show record abstention could help far-right candidate Marine Le Pen win.
In a meeting on Thursday with readers of Le Parisien newspaper, Macron promised to extend costly measures to shield voters from rising electricity and petrol prices, and said that when companies pay dividends, they should be forced to share some of the profits with employees.
On Friday, he also denied he had veered too much to the right during his first mandate, which saw him cut taxes on the rich, reduce housing allowances and order a police crackdown on “yellow vest” protests.
“With what we’ve done for education and hospitals, I don’t have the feeling it’s a right-wing platform,” Macron said on RTL radio, stressing that although he was promising to raise the retirement age, he was also planning to increase the minimum monthly pension to 1,100 euros ($1,196).
Opinion polls show Le Pen, Macron’s main rival, closing in on the president with just two days to go before the first round, boosted by her strategy to focus on the cost of living just as record-high prices at the petrol pump and food inflation is making it voters’ top concern.
Macron, meanwhile, has been losing ground since mid-March, weighed down by a manifesto that features unpopular conservative measures such as pushing the retirement age to 65 and making some welfare benefits conditional on training.
“Today, left-wing voters think he is too right-wing,” Jean-Daniel Levy from polling institute Harris Interractive told Reuters. “So reassuring the left is an important challenge for the president.”
At a rally last Saturday, Macron made a clear appeal to left-wing voters, urging a round of applause for teachers and nurses, promising to create jobs in hospitals and nursing homes and saying welfare benefits would be conditional on training and not community work as previously suggested.
LE PEN WOOING THE LEFT TOO
Polls show Le Pen has gained ground among poorer left-leaning voters by promising to cut VAT on petrol to 5.5% from 20% and to allow people to retire two years earlier than the current minimum age of 62 if they have started working before 20.
Meanwhile, better-off centre-left voters say they could abstain this time if Macron faces Le Pen in the April 24 runoff vote, depriving him of what is known as the “republican front”, whereby mainstream voters end up rallying behind any candidate facing the far-right.
The most recent Ifop poll shows a tight race between Macron at 52% and Le Pen’s 48% if those two face each other in the runoff.
Campaign insiders also say Macron needs to appeal to the left before the first round, because coming second behind Le Pen on Sunday would give her strong momentum ahead of the runoff.
In opinion polls on the first round, support for Macron has dropped from a peak of 31.5% in March in the first days of the war in Ukraine to 26.5% now, while backing for Le Pen has surged from 16% to 24%.
“Macron needs votes from the left as soon as the first round,” Juliette Meadel, a former Socialist minister who has joined his camp, told Reuters. “He needs these voters more than ever this year because there’s momentum behind Le Pen and doubts about his programme.”
Macron has started to attack Le Pen on the sincerity of her social policies.
“I think Marine Le Pen’s social programme is a lie. Because she can’t fund it,” he told readers of Le Parisien. “Marine Le Pen’s social policies are funded with mock currency.”
($1 = 0.9197 euros)
(Reporting by Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Frances Kerry)