DENAIN, France—Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen traded blows at a distance on Monday over who would best protect French voters’ purchasing power, kicking off a tense fight to win the presidential election runoff on April 24.
Macron, a pro-European economic liberal who became president in 2017 after easily beating Le Pen, is facing a much tougher challenge this time.
He is slightly ahead in polls, but Le Pen, who ahead of Sunday’s first round successfully tapped into anger over the cost of living and a perception that Macron is disconnected from everyday hardships, pressed on those points on Monday.
“Emmanuel Macron, if by some mischance he was reelected, would feel totally free to continue his policy of social wreckage,” Le Pen said on a visit to a rural area southeast of Paris.
Warning of the “dark clouds” that inflation cast on France, she said Macron had failed to protect the French, adding that she would, if elected, slash the VAT on energy and bring it to zero for 100 essential food and hygiene products “so the French can continue to put fuel in their car … and feed themselves.”
Macron said Le Pen’s economic promises were a fantasy.
On a walkabout in Denain, one of the country’s poorest towns in its former industrial heartland, he warned voters that Le Pen, who has successfully focused her campaign on the cost-of-living issues troubling millions, would not be able to finance her economic agenda.
In hours of sometimes heated exchanges, locals called Macron out on everything from his plans to push back the retirement age to his saying at the height of the Omicron phase of the COVID-19 pandemic that he wanted to “piss off” anti-vaxxers.
“I said that lovingly,” he told a bewildered local about the much-commented “piss-off” comment.
“It’s all fake. … He’s coming to talk to us now because he’s scared of losing to Marine Le Pen,” 36-year-old Stephanie Berta, an unemployed mother of six and a Le Pen voter, told Reuters outside the Denain town hall.
But beyond Denain, where Le Pen on Sunday won 42 percent of votes in the town and the left-wing Jean-Luc Melenchon came second, Macron was telling voters across France he had heard their concerns and wanted to create wealth so more could be redistributed.
He said he was ready to adapt his platform and improve it, in particular to better protect the environment.
Macron told BFM TV that he was open to discussing his unpopular proposal to push back the legal retirement age to 65. “I don’t want to divide the country,” he said, while insisting that people would need to work longer for the pension system to be sustainable.
A Le Pen win would send shockwaves across Europe and beyond, and deliver a jolt to the establishment similar to Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union or Donald Trump’s 2017 entry into the White House.
France’s Medef employers group said that Macron’s policy plans were best placed to help boost growth in France, while Le Pen’s project would lead the country to lag behind its neighbors and trigger “a very strong and unfunded increase in public spending expenditure (which) would risk placing the country in an impasse.”
Interior Ministry results showed that, on Sunday, Macron won 27.84 percent of votes, while Le Pen secured 23.15 percent, and Melenchon got 21.95 percent.
Le Pen has focused her campaign on social policies including cutting the retirement age to 60 for those who start work before 20, scrapping income tax for the under-30s, and reducing the VAT on energy to 5.5 percent from 20 percent. She says her numbers add up.