By Stephane Mahe and Ingrid Melander
SPEZET, France (Reuters) -Strolling around a small town in northwestern France, beaming to crowds shouting “Macron President!,” Emmanuel Macron sought to revive a lacklustre campaign whose increasingly uncertain outcome rattled markets on Tuesday.
Macron is still ahead in opinion polls but his far-right, eurosceptic rival Marine Le Pen has been closing the gap, and a poll on Monday put victory within the margin of error, unnerving investors ahead of Sunday’s first round.
With Le Pen’s ratings boosted by months of canvassing small constituencies, the 44-year old president, who has only started campaigning, spent hours talking with voters in the Brittany town of Spezet’s main square, taking selfies amid cheers and a handful of boos.
“You can count on me … on my determination. I will, in the coming days and weeks seek out, one by one, the confidence of our compatriots, to (have the mandate to continue) to act in the years to come for our country, for Europe,” he said.
Macron easily beat Le Pen five years ago with two-thirds of the vote in the second round. But though polls https://graphics.reuters.com/FRANCE-ELECTION/POLLS/zjvqkomzlvx/index.html see both qualifying this time too for the April 24 runoff, they put Macron’s lead at just 3 to 6 points – the former being within the margin of error.
France’s benchmark CAC-40 index abruptly lost ground on Tuesday, with traders citing election nerves, while the spread between French and German 10-year government bonds stood at its widest in two years.
“Markets woke up on Le Pen,” said Jerome Legras, head of research at Axiom Alternative Investments.
SOFTENING LE PEN’S IMAGE
Since her 2017 defeat, Le Pen has patiently worked on softening her image, striving to appear as a potential leader rather than a radical anti-system opponent.
Polls show this has worked on a growing number of voters, with a survey saying the once vilified candidate has become the second most-liked politician in the country.
The candidacy of Eric Zemmour, who is even further to the right than Le Pen, has, by contrast, helped Le Pen appear more palatable to voters.
“I always try to have the most reasonable view possible, and one that defends the interest of France,” she told France Inter radio.
Le Pen has continued to improve on her pre-first round polling, at 23% versus Macron’s 27%, two polls showed on Tuesday.
However, some 59% of those surveyed expected Macron to win a second mandate, the poll by OpinionWay and Kéa Partners for the Les Echos daily and Radio Classique showed, still the most likely scenario, all polls show.
Macron focused a half-hour speech in Spezet on how crucial Europe was for France – stressing, without naming her, Le Pen’s lingering euroscepticsm.
“Projects that turn their backs on Europe are harmful and deadly … for our future,” he said, concluding with a resounding: “Vive la France, et vive l’Europe!”
While she has ditched plans to leave the euro, which had put off many voters in the past, Le Pen’s platform aims to hollow out the European Union by giving preeminence to French law, and replace the bloc with a “European Alliance of Nations”.
“A victory for Le Pen would almost certainly worsen the public finances and place a question mark over France’s place in Europe, unnerving investors,” Jessica Hinds of Capital Economics said in a note.
Le Pen, who has taken great pains to stress her love of cats more than her anti-immigration views, has not changed the core of her far-right party’s programme.
She would end a number of welfare benefits for foreigners, stop family reunification, give preference to the French for jobs and social housing, ban the hijab in public spaces and kick unemployed foreigners out of France.
She defended those views on Tuesday.
“Being French should give you more rights than being a foreigner,” she said.
But this is not what she has focused on in a campaign pegged on purchasing power, which has struck a chord with many voters.
“I have been campaigning seriously, I’ve been in the field for six months… Others chose not to campaign, including the president of the republic,” Le Pen told France Inter.
(Additional reporting by Julien Ponthus, Sudip Kar-Gupta; Writing by Ingrid Melander, editing by Ed Osmond, Hugh Lawson and Nick Macfie)