‘Rich man’ Macron faces contempt on home turf

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LONGUEAU, France — Forget about home court advantage.

In this economically depressed area of northern France, near where Emmanuel Macron grew up, there isn’t much love for the local boy who went on to become one of his country’s youngest-ever presidents.

On the contrary, several locals described him as a wealthy man who is out of touch with the everyday concerns of “little people.” Some said they were planning to vote for his rival, far-right chief Marine Le Pen, in the final round of the presidential election on April 24.

“I really don’t like Macron. He’s a rich man’s president,” said retired account Didier Balesdens as he queued up at the market in Longueau on the outskirts of the northern city of Amiens where Macron spent his childhood. “He lent money to big companies during the pandemic, but couldn’t he have taken some of their profits to help people?”

Balesdens, who voted for the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, isn’t comfortable voting for Le Pen and worries about the tensions her immigration policies would create if she became president. But his hatred of Macron and “his inability to understand little people” trumps those concerns and could lead him to cast a vote for Le Pen in the final round.

Such contempt on his home turf underscores wider challenges for Macron.

Despite having beaten Le Pen by 5 percentage points in the election’s first round last Sunday, Macron must now convince a much broader swath of the electorate — namely left-wing voters — to back him in the runoff. But if Balesdens and others like him are ready to cross over to the far right, Macron could face a much tighter race against Le Pen than he did in 2017, not just in his native region but across the country. (POLITICO’s Poll of Polls suggests Macron will win with 53 percent of the vote against Le Pen.)

FRANCE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Mindful of the challenge, Macron has rushed to soften his image in the lead-up to the final round. He has backtracked on his proposal to push back the age of retirement to 65, and offered to rehire unvaccinated nurses who had been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Balesdens and others like him aren’t convinced by the last-minute changes. Hostility toward Macron was widespread this week among locals who spoke to POLITICO in Longueau, just a short drive from where Macron grew up in the Somme department.

“He hasn’t left good memories here,” said Longueau mayor and left-wing independent Pascal Ourdouillé, recalling Macron’s failed attempt to keep a local Whirlpool factory open. Even if Macron’s government boasts it brought unemployment down to its lowest point since 2008, it’s local job losses that made headlines here.

The closure of the white goods factory during Macron’s mandate became a symbol of his fight to keep industrial jobs in France. During the campaign for the presidential election in 2017, both Le Pen and Macron met the Whirlpool workers and pledged to try and keep the factory open if they were elected.

“He came here, put on a show, made promises and didn’t keep them,” said Ourdouillé, who recalls that in 2018, the factory closed despite several attempts to save it.

National Rally inroads

Others in Longueau said that despite their disappointment, they would hold their noses and back Macron in the second round.

“I don’t like either of them, but particularly not Le Pen,” said pensioner Jacqueline Mast, a left-wing supporter. “Macron doesn’t sweep me off my feet. He makes promises and breaks them but the far right and their hatred of foreigners — no thank you.” 

Mast echoes left-wingers like the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and the Greens’ Yannick Jadot, who are calling on voters to cast a vote for Macron to keep the far right out of power after being knocked out of the race in the first round.

In 2017, Macron benefited from what’s called the “Republican front” against the far right by which left-wing voters, loathe to see a far-right candidate gain power, vote for the other camp despite their reservations.

But this time around things aren’t quite so simple. Le Pen’s National Rally party is making inroads in low-income towns like Longueau.

Ten years ago, this former commuter town for railway workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Socialist Party. In the first round of voting on Sunday, 27 percent backed Le Pen compared with 23 percent for Macron.

Many here say Le Pen’s strategy of detoxifying the National Rally is helping her. Not only has she abandoned unpopular commitments to leave the EU and toned down her anti-immigration rhetoric but she has pursued a more down-to-earth agenda, campaigning on bread-and-butter issues and promising to cut taxes on basic foodstuffs and fuel amid galloping inflation.

“[Her proposals] have an echo here. Railway workers don’t have high salaries, and they have been hard hit by inflation,” said Joël Brunet, a retired teacher and communist.

In the last presidential election, 60 percent of the voters in Longueau came out in support of Macron in a runoff vote against Le Pen, though only 23 percent had voted for him in the first round. Brunet thinks it’s unlikely Macron will benefit from the same backing this time.

“I don’t think it’s going to flip in favor of Le Pen, but it’s going to be a lot tighter,” he said.

“It’s starting to chafe that every time we have to vote for a candidate we don’t approve of just to keep the far-right out of power,” he said.

Back in the mayor’s office, Ourdouillé feels confident that the balance nationwide will fall in favor of Macron at the second round on April 24.

“I’m not worried at all. He’ll beat her 52 to 48,” he said.

Some would prefer stronger odds.

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