France’s centrist leader Emmanuel Macron will take his hunt for extra votes on Monday to the industrial heartlands of northern France, a blue-collar stronghold of his far-right rival Marine Le Pen who he will face in an April 24 presidential runoff vote.
Macron and Le Pen came out on top in Sunday’s first-round vote, setting up a repeat of the 2017 runoff between the pro-European economic liberal and euro-sceptic nationalist.
Left-wing voters will be crucial to determining the outcome of the election. Third-placed challenger, hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, told supporters not one single vote should go to the far right but stopped short of endorsing Macron.
“Let’s make no mistake, nothing has been decided yet,” Macron told his cheering supporters late on Sunday after partial results showed him qualifying for the runoff.
An interior ministry count showed that with 97% of votes counted, Macron had won 27.60% of voters’ support. Le Pen secured 23.41% and Melenchon 21.95%.
Polls predict a close-fought second round with one survey projecting Macron will win with just 51% of the vote and 49% for Le Pen. The gap is so tight that victory either way is within the margin of error.
Macron took aim at his far-right rival over the financing of her economic agenda, which would see the retirement age cut to 60 for those who start work before 20, income tax scrapped for the under-30s and VAT on energy reduced to 5.5% from 20%.
Le Pen has brought the image of her far-right party closer to the mainstream at a time when France has also lurched to the right in the wake of Islamist attacks. Even so, her softer, less combative manner belies a hardline anti-immigrant programme.
But it has been her focus on the cost-of-living issues troubling millions that has helped her tap into a widespread discontent towards rulers as she has toured towns and villages across France.
Le Pen said voters were making a choice between two opposite visions of France: “one of division, injustice and disorder imposed by Emmanuel Macron for the benefit of a few, the other a rallying together of French people around social justice and protection.”
Le Pen won 33% of the votes in the northern Hauts-de-France region where Macron is campaigning on Monday, but left-wing candidates were close behind and won a combined 27-28% of the vote in the area.
Macron supporters and some of his campaign insiders have said he must do more to win over the left.
Melenchon ally Clementine Autain told RMC radio she hoped Melenchon voters would not vote for Le Pen, but said Macron’s record and programme had little to attract leftist voters.
“Macron does not protect France from being taken over by the far right,” she said.
On Tuesday, Macron will head to Strasbourg, where Melenchon notched up a high score.