But a Le Pen upset victory still remains a possibility. The final polls missed the result margin by nearly nine percentage points five years ago, and turnout could play a critical role in Sunday’s vote.
Both candidates appeared eager to avoid unwelcome surprises on Friday, making their last campaign stops in areas they won in the first round and whose votes they will need in the runoff. Le Pen, 53, met with voters in the Pas-de-Calais region, a far-right stronghold, and visited a medical center, making a final attempt to portray herself as a candidate who is close to the people, including those who feel forgotten by Macron’s government.
“We did an outreach campaign, a field campaign. I met tens of thousands of French people,” she said. “I think we did a very good campaign.”
Meanwhile, Macron, 44, traveled to the southern French town of Figeac, where he came in 13 percentage points ahead of Le Pen two weeks ago. The incumbent did almost no campaigning before the first round, but hit the trail hard in the final stage.
“April 24 is a referendum on the future of France,” Macron told BFM television on Friday evening, in his final interview before the election, comparing the stakes — and potential risks of abstentionism — to the 2016 U.S. election and the Brexit vote. “It’s a choice between leaving or not leaving Europe … a choice between turning the back on ecology or not, a choice between abandoning or not abandoning the secular republic.”
French law prohibits any campaigning or the release of polls from Friday midnight until the election results are known.
The biggest challenge for Macron is no longer “the amount of votes Le Pen herself will get,” but rather his ability to fight any inclination among people who supported him in 2017 to sit out the vote this time, said Antoine Jardin, a political scientist.
Macron’s reelection strategy has largely centered on outreach to left-leaning voters and an attempt to reactivate France’s “Republican front” — a broad coalition of voters to prevent a far-right presidency.
“France is one bloc,” Macron said Friday, addressing voters in Figeac.
Five years ago, that coalition helped Macron beat Le Pen by a margin of more than 30 percentage points.
But now, Le Pen has brought the far-right closer than ever before to the French presidency — prompting concerns in other European capitals.
In an unusual op-ed on Friday, the leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal suggested French voters should reelect Macron, to defend against a far-right threat to European values. The piece didn’t name either candidate directly.
“The choice French people are facing is crucial for France and for all of us in Europe,” the three leaders wrote in France’s center-left Le Monde newspaper. “They have to choose between a democratic candidate, who believes that France is stronger in a powerful and autonomous European Union, and a far-right candidate, who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy, which are the fundamental values we inherited directly from the French Enlightenment.”
Macron chose similar language to attack Le Pen in Wednesday’s televised debate — the only direct meeting of the candidates. He portrayed her as more radical than she would acknowledge and as beholden to Russian interests, citing a loan to her 2017 campaign from a Russian state bank.
Le Pen on Friday characterized Macron’s accusations as “defamatory.”
In 2017, thousands of internal Macron campaign emails were released by Russia-linked hackers on the Friday night before the election, just before the mandatory end of campaigning. It was widely seen as a Russian attempt to boost Le Pen, who had regularly expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, been highly critical of NATO and advocated for France to leave the European Union.
In this campaign, Le Pen sought to moderate her image and distance herself from Putin. She condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said she would welcome Ukrainian refugees in France.
“Changing her position on Vladimir Putin and Russia was a must-do,” said Martin Quencez, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office. “There was no other solution.”
She still opposes an embargo on Russian oil and gas and wants a referendum to end immigration.
Polls suggest French voters, though, have been thinking more about economic issues than foreign policy in this campaign season.
Le Pen has promoted that Macron doesn’t understand middle-class concerns. She has riffed off the notion that Macron, a former investment banker, has been a “president of the rich,” who can be aloof and arrogant.
In an interview with the France Inter radio station on Friday, Macron rejected accusations of arrogance as “a political argument.”
Macron stirred excitement in France when he first ran in 2017, launching his own movement and promising to bring a different sort of politics to the Élysée Palace. But enthusiasm for him as an incumbent has been more limited. Some left-leaning voters have expressed frustration that he shifted to the right on issues such as immigration and security.
About 3,000 people showed up for his rally last weekend in the southern city of Marseille — compared to 4,000 who listened to Le Pen in Avignon, a city with one tenth the population.
Macron was greeted with chants demanding his resignation in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis, where he visited an urban renovation project and boxed at a sports club on Thursday.
Hundreds of students occupied university buildings in Paris last week to protest what they saw as two disappointing choices in the final round.
Macron’s approval rating has hovered around 45 percent over the past months. His two most recent predecessors, leftist François Hollande and center-right Nicolas Sarkozy, both had lower ratings toward the end of their one-term presidencies, with Hollande at around 20 percent and Sarkozy around 35 percent. Sarkozy was not reelected, while Hollande did not seek a second term.
Addressing a crowd in a medieval market square in Figeac on Friday, Macron echoed the sentiment that France’s political class has failed voters, vowing more support for small towns and rural communities “which, sometimes, have been neglected over the last 20 years,” he acknowledged.
Although Figeac was a hub for yellow vest protests about inequality in 2019, the town could also be said to encapsulate Macron’s vision for France: rooted in its history, true to its values, but ready to take advantage of an increasingly globalized world.
Nestled between lush hills, a river, and a pilgrimage trail, the town has benefited from its proximity to nearby Airbus plants, boosting local companies and its technology institute. Figeac’s population is relatively young and the far-right has struggled to make inroads there.
Middle-aged voters in France, between 30 and 60, have appeared most open to Le Pen’s campaign.
Whereas older voters were largely behind other nationalist victories, like the Trump presidency and Britain’s vote to leave the E.U., France’s older generation is a key obstacle to a Le Pen victory.
Many in that age group remember vividly what the party stood for before Le Pen took it over from her father, who called Nazi gas chambers just a “detail” of World War II.
Meanwhile, the youngest voters may primarily choose candidates on the left, but they aren’t as concerned about Le Pen, either.
“There are two conflicting trends: Younger generations are much more concerned about racial issues, gender issues, personal and sexual freedom” than older voters, Jardin said. “But they are also less likely to perceive Marine Le Pen as a strongly far-right racist person than older voters.”
Some left-leaning voters’ decision to abstain from Sunday’s vote may hinge on a risky bet: They don’t want Le Pen to become president, but they hope that a narrower-than-expected outcome of the election could force Macron to take their concerns more into account over the next five years.
“If he wins with a wider margin than expected,” Jardin said, it would make it easier for Macron to “implement what he wants.”