By Yiming Woo and Ingrid Melander
AVIGNON, France (Reuters) -Victory has never been closer, far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen told an election rally on Thursday to frequent interruptions from an enthusiastic crowd chanting “We’re going to win!”
Just 10 days ahead of a runoff election that will determine who will lead the European Union’s second-largest economy for the next five years, opinion polls show centrist President Emmanuel Macron is slightly ahead of Le Pen.
But the contest is so tight it could potentially go either way, making the crowd of several thousand in the southern city of Avignon appear confident as they chanted “Marine President!” and waved French flags.
“My friends, let’s not doubt victory. It has never been so close. It will be the victory of France, a victory for all French,” Le Pen said.
With the electorate fragmented and undecided, the election will likely be won by the candidate who can, beyond his or her camp, convince a bigger number of voters that the other option would be far worse.
For decades in France, a “republican front” of voters of all stripes rallying behind a mainstream candidate helped keep the far-right out of power.
But Macron, whose sometimes abrasive style and policies that veered to the right have upset many voters, can no longer automatically count on that, though he has pressed that point, warning of Le Pen’s “authoritarian” streak.
Le Pen brushed the criticism off as “childish paranoia,” saying: “It’s one more mandate for Emmanuel Macron which would be a risk for the country.”
“We’re proposing a truly alternative project,” she said, urging all voters to rally behind her to push out “a worn-out system.”
Le Pen, who had also been a candidate in the past two presidential elections, is more popular than ever in France, opinion polls show, having successfully softened her image and pegged her campaign on cost-of-living woes.
She has not changed the core of her anti-immigration, eurosceptic far-right platform, but is not focusing on that, unlike in her previous election bids.
Ahead of her speech, one supporter, Brigitte Bertrand, said she was voting for Le Pen for the third time and was more enthusiastic than ever. “I like her policies,” she said.
Le Pen has a strong following in parts of southern France, but plenty of detractors too.
In the historic city of Avignon, once the seat of the Catholic popes in the 14th century, retiree Paulette Chareyle, stayed well away from the rally.
“I don’t like her ideas. I won’t vote for her,” Chareyle said, adding that Le Pen’s softer image was “a manipulation, to impose a very hard far-right.”
(Reporting by Yiming Woo in Avignon; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Susan Fenton and Leslie Adler)