French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen. File Picture REUTERS/PHILIPPE WOJAZER
French National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen. File Picture REUTERS/PHILIPPE WOJAZER

Paris — Centrist Emmanuel Macron has received two boosts from the left in France’s presidential election, but polls show far-right candidate Marine le Pen holding onto her gains. A senior socialist minister — agriculture minister and government spokesperson Stephane Le Foll — said on Tuesday that he might back Macron, a new blow to the left’s hopes but a move that could help Macron as he battles to maintain his campaign’s momentum.

On Wednesday, François de Rugy, who stood unsuccessfully as an ecology candidate in the primaries of the left that elected socialist Benoit Hamon as candidate, said he would back Macron. De Rugy won 3.82% of the vote in those primaries, and has been critical of Hamon’s policies.

Polls foresee a wide, multi-candidate race, in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen holds onto recent gains, keeping debt and foreign exchange markets on edge.

Two polls show ex-banker Macron neck-and-neck with conservative rival François Fillon as favourite. A third poll, from Elabe, has Macron in retreat, and makes former prime minister Fillon, of the Republicans, favourite for the first time since a scandal over alleged fake work rocked his campaign four weeks ago.

All recent polls show Le Pen ahead in the April 23 first round, but losing a May 7 run-off to whichever of Macron or Fillon topped round one. They also show, however, that her losing margin has shrunk to as little as 6 percentage points from more than 10.

Le Foll’s potential defection is the latest in a slew of bad news for France’s divided political left. "I support the man who has been chosen [by the socialists], but the moment comes for political responsibility with regard to what is at play, with regard to Marine Le Pen and with regard to the programme of François Fillon," he said on BFM TV.

Asked whether this meant he would back whoever was best placed to prevent a Le Pen-Fillon run-off, he said: "Exactly!" Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has also said he might back Macron — rather than the ruling socialists’ chosen candidate Benoit Hamon, who is a distant fourth in the polls.

Despite the prospect of heavyweight socialist backing, the polls show Macron’s campaign losing momentum. Elabe pollsters reckon he has made a series of missteps that explain how they now see Fillon: "He has 10 difficult days ahead."

Left divided

Macron angered opponents on the right during a visit to Algeria last week by calling France’s colonial past a crime against humanity. He has upset gay marriage supporters by saying their opponents had been humiliated by the government when it pushed through the gay marriage bill in 2013.

On Tuesday, Macron took his centrist and pro-European campaign to London, home to a large expatriate French community who get to vote in the elections. The anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen, meanwhile, caused controversy on a trip to Lebanon where her plans to meet a senior Muslim figure were cancelled after her refusal to wear a headscarf.

Le Pen’s surge has worried investors, concerned that her policies will further destabilise fragile European unity, blow apart the eurozone and hurt the value of French debt. The cost of insuring French government debt against default has risen to its highest level in more than three years and sterling rose almost 1% against the euro to its highest in two months.

Fillon, meanwhile, is tweaking the healthcare policies that caused a campaign wobble earlier this year, having apparently put allegations behind him that his wife was paid hundreds of thousands of euros for work she may not have done. Fillon has said the work was genuine. An official inquiry is under way.

Besides the three-way fight, discussions to unite candidates on the left look to be going nowhere. Hamon is pushing a hard-left programme that divides his party and competes for votes with another leftist, communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Mélenchon is in fifth place, but a combined Hamon-Mélenchon vote could, theoretically, put them into first or second and therefore into the run-off, instead of Fillon or Macron, against Le Pen.

Talks between Mélenchon, a veteran campaigner, and Hamon, an ex-education minister, were tentative from the start and both have acknowledged wide policy differences. On Tuesday, Hamon gave the latest indication that they were unlikely to be joining forces. "There is a desire on Mélenchon’s part to go on right to the end," Hamon said on Europe 1 radio. "I respect that ... In any case, I will work on right to the end."

Political analysts are also eyeing an imminent decision from veteran centrist François Bayrou on whether to stand. If he stands, it could hurt Macron, but his backing could be a further boost.

Reuters

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