Centrist presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen attacked each other’s visions of France and the role it should play in Europe on Monday (1 May) against a background of May Day rallies and protests.
Macron sought for a third successive day to paint National Front (FN) candidate Le Pen as an extremist, while she portrayed him as a clone of unpopular outgoing Socialist President François Hollande, under whom he served as economy minister from 2014 to 2016.
Two opinion polls showed Macron winning what is widely seen as France’s most important election in decades with between 59 and 61% of the vote.
On offer is a choice between his vision of closer integration with a modernised European Union and her calls to cut immigration and take the country out of the euro.
“I will fight up until the very last second not only against her programme but also her idea of what constitutes democracy and the French Republic,” said Macron, an independent backed by a new party, En Marche! (Onwards!), which he set up a year ago.
He was speaking after paying tribute to a young Moroccan man who drowned in the River Seine in Paris 22 years ago after being pushed into the water by skinheads on the fringes of a May Day rally by the FN, then led by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie.
Later, at a rally, he described her as “the anti-France candidate” and said “we want Europe to be strong because we want France to be strong.”
He also rejected calls from leftwing politicians to drop his business friendly reforms.
“I heard the calls to change my manifesto,” he said, in a reference to the demands of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who picked up one in five votes in the first round of voting last weekend.
“Some did it in the past but I won’t do it.”
He said his proposed reforms, which include capping severance payments to make firing and hiring easier, were necessary to address unemployment, which has hovered around 10% in France for several years.
“These changes are essential to prevent the National Front from becoming stronger in five years’ time,” he added.
In a message of conciliation to voters concerned about globalisation, however, Macron said he would set up a committee to investigate the consequences of the CETA free trade deal between Europe and Canada.
He also repeated he would seek fairer EU rules to prevent what he calls ‘social dumping’ – under which companies can move jobs to member countries where labour is cheaper and employ imported workers at lower rates.
Le Pen’s euro flip flops
Meanwhile, in Villepinte, a suburb north of the capital, Marine Le Pen told supporters: “Emmanuel Macron is just François Hollande who wants to stay and who is hanging on to power like a barnacle.”
She called for France to reclaim its ‘independence’ from the EU but made no mention of her proposal to drop the euro, the part of her campaign platform which is the least popular with voters, and which she has played down in recent days.
Le Pen on Saturday said ditching the euro was no longer her top economic priority. Under a deal struck on the same day with eurosceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan to attract the 1.7 million votes he garnered in the first round vote, Le Pen said abandoning the euro was not a “prerequisite”.
However, on Sunday she renewed her attacks against the single currency, which she said was “dead”, – renewing a key theme of her campaign which has been marked by her anti-European Union, ‘Frexit’ stance.
This time, she said she would introduce a “new currency” if she wins on May 7. But she made the distinction between a new currency for daily use and the euro that she said would be retained for “large companies who trade internationally”.
Florian Philippot, the FN’s deputy leader, said in a radio interview on Monday that Le Pen would open negotiations with the EU immediately after her election, which he said could last up to eight months. “Afterwards there will be a referendum so that the French people can have their say on the agreement that is struck,” he said.
But on Monday evening, Le Pen told public TV France 2 that she would put off her decision until after the German election in September.
Opinion polls show that while an overwhelming majority of FN voters back a return to the Franc, about three quarters of French voters want to keep the euro, making it a major hurdle to Le Pen’s quest for power.
May Day rallies
At rallies in Paris, Marseille and elsewhere, some trade unionists and activists sought to turn the May Day workers’ holiday into a day of national solidarity against the National Front, mirroring protests in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election before losing heavily to conservative Jacques Chirac.
However, other groups, including the powerful CGT union, refused to explicitly back Macron and organised their demonstrations separately.
Groups of masked and hooded youths dressed in black were visible among protesters in the capital. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and police responded with tear gas, making five arrests. Six police officers were hurt, one suffering serious burns.
The election has exposed some of the same sense of anger with globalisation and political elites that brought Donald Trump to presidential power in the United States, and caused Britons to vote for a divorce from the EU.
The second round of the election will take place on 7 May in the middle of a weekend extended by a public holiday. A high abstention rate could favour Le Pen, whose supporters typically tell pollsters they are staunchly committed to their candidate.
She devoted much of her Monday speech, lasting nearly an hour, to attacking Macron as the face of the establishment.
Referring to her plan to hold a referendum on whether France should remain in the EU, Le Pen said: “The French people will decide.”