11-man race to be French president wide open

Mr Emmanuel Macron, smiling and unfazed, shaking hands with a supporter of rival candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen about to be hugged by one of her supporters during an election campaign rally in Perpignan on Sa
French National Front leader Marine Le Pen about to be hugged by one of her supporters during an election campaign rally in Perpignan on Saturday. Polls show her leading the first round with Mr Macron at around 22 to 24 per cent each.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Mr Emmanuel Macron, smiling and unfazed, shaking hands with a supporter of rival candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen about to be hugged by one of her supporters during an election campaign rally in Perpignan on Sa
Mr Emmanuel Macron, smiling and unfazed, shaking hands with a supporter of rival candidate Jean-Luc MelenchonPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hopefuls make final pitch before voters pick two candidates this Sunday for run-off on May 7

PARIS • A week before France's high-stakes presidential election, the four top candidates began a final push yesterday to woo undecided voters who will determine the outcome of the tight race between the hard left, centre, right and far right.

This Sunday, the French go to the polls in the most unpredictable vote in the country's post-war history to choose two candidates from a field of 11 who will go through to a run-off two weeks later.

With a duel between far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Communist-backed radical Jean-Luc Melenchon, both eurosceptics, among one of six possible outcomes, the election is being closely watched in Brussels and around the world.

Opinion polls show one in three voters still undecided about whom to back after a campaign characterised by scandals and upsets.

For some voters, Ms Le Pen is too extreme while centrist Emmanuel Macron is too young.

Opinion polls show one in three voters still undecided about whom to back after a campaign characterised by scandals and upsets. For some voters, Ms Le Pen is too extreme while centrist Emmanuel Macron is too young. Conservative Francois Fillon cannot be trusted, Socialist Benoit Hamon is the establishment and Mr Melenchon, too risky.

Conservative Francois Fillon cannot be trusted, Socialist Benoit Hamon is the establishment and Mr Melenchon, too risky. In an interview in the Le Parisien newspaper yesterday, 65-year-old Mr Melenchon, who is threatening to quit the euro and massively increase public spending, vowed he would be a safe pair of hands for the second-largest economy in the euro zone.

"I am not from the far left," the leader of the La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement said, insisting he was "ready to govern".

Mr Melenchon's surge has shaken up the race, with many hesitating between voting with their hearts and a tactical vote for whichever candidate they see as best placed to keep Ms Le Pen or Mr Melenchon out of power.

Ms Le Pen - polls show her leading the first round with centrist Mr Macron at around 22 to 24 per cent each - returned to her party's core themes of immigration and Islam on Saturday to try to mobilise her base.

Polls have consistently shown that Mr Macron would comfortably win the second round should he qualify for the May 7 run-off.

The polls had also shown Ms Le Pen virtually assured of a place in the May 7 vote but Mr Melenchon and the conservative Mr Fillon have narrowed the gap with her and Mr Macron to about three points, blowing the race wide open.

In a speech in the southern city of Perpignan, 48-year-old Ms Le Pen, leader of the National Front (FN), lashed out at Mr Macron and Mr Fillon, accusing them of being soft on radical Islam.

"With Mr Macron, it would be Islamism on the move," Ms Le Pen said, in a play on the name of Mr Macron's En Marche (On the Move) party, calling the 39-year-old champion of diversity "unscrupulous".

Casting herself as the best defender against the militants who have killed more than 230 people in France since 2015, Ms Le Pen also tore into Mr Fillon, accusing him of letting ultra-conservative Islam gain ground when he was prime minister of the country between 2007 and 2012.

The election has revealed high levels of angst over a perceived erosion of French identity, which Ms Le Pen has pinned on immigration, particularly from Muslim North Africa.

In an Ifop-Fiducial poll for Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper, 86 per cent of National Front voters said they "no longer feel at home" in France and 73 per cent considered Islam incompatible with the French republic.

But the poll also showed Ms Le Pen, who has spent years trying to detoxify her party's image, still struggling to win over the absolute majority of voters needed for victory in a run-off.

Three-quarters of non-FN voters said the party is "dangerous for democracy" and four out of five found it "racist".

Mr Fillon, who is on the rebound from a damaging expenses scandal that had caused some of his voters to switch to Ms Le Pen or Mr Macron, used Easter to mobilise his traditionalist Catholic base.

"Patriotism is not a dirty word," he told supporters in the cathedral town of Puy-en-Velay last Saturday - borrowing from the songbook of Ms Le Pen who styles the FN the "party of patriots".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline '11-man race to be French president wide open'. Print Edition | Subscribe