In the French village, the Macron and Le Pen camps set up their stands – POLITICO

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SAINT-DIDIER, France — Ten activists from Emmanuel Macron’s party descended on the weekly market in this sleepy village, determined to persuade voters to give the French president a second term.

But the activists — spirited retirees, local politicians and a recent university graduate armed with pro-Macron leaflets — faced an uphill battle on two fronts earlier this week as they try to win over wavering locals.

This picturesque corner of south-east France is home to many supporters of Marine Le Pen, Macron’s far-right challenger. And unlike five years ago, when he won his first term, her husband is not such a blank slate: He has a record, and some people don’t like him.

“I was disappointed in Macron,” said Frédérique Genson, a 56-year-old clerk at the local grocery store. Though she voted for him in 2017, Genson said she will vote for Le Pen in the crucial second round of this year’s election on Sunday.

She complained that Macron had not been firm enough with Russia on the war in Ukraine, slammed his “evolving” retirement proposals and bemoaned the inaction in dealing with the rising cost of living.

“I don’t entirely agree with everything Marine Le Pen is proposing, but I know she will not be the only one making decisions as President.” said Genson.

Frédérique Genson, a saleswoman at Saint-Didier, who will vote for Le Pen this Sunday | Victor Jack/POLITICS

While Wednesday night’s televised duel between Macron and Le Pen was a key moment in the race for the presidency, the election will also be decided by on-the-spot election campaigns across France in cities, towns and villages such as Saint-Didier, a sun-drenched commune with around 2,000 inhabitants between rolling hills and the impressive Ventoux mountain.

Polls suggest Macron has a national lead of about 10 percentage points ahead of Sunday’s runoff. But that gap is much smaller than his lead over Le Pen five years ago when he won by more than 30 points.

In Saint-Didier, Le Pen is benefiting from the local strength of her National Rally (RN) party and from disenchantment with Macron, who has endured a tumultuous tenure that has also included anti-establishment yellow jacket protests, COVID and the war in belonged to Ukraine.

Stephen Rickerby, a 66 year old retiree who lived there Saint-Didier said there was a feeling in the village that “there was a lot more hope for Macron than was realized,” Saint-Didier said.

Macron’s ground game

Le Pen prevailed in Saint-Didier in the first ballot on April 10 by more than 29 percent of the vote – about six points higher than their national score. It also recorded strong performances further afield – in the Vaucluse department and in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region.

But in 2017, Le Pen topped the first-round poll in those areas as well—only for Macron to win the second round in all areas. Supporters of his centrist La République En Marche (LREM) party want to repeat the trick this time, often by targeting people who didn’t vote in the first round or who voted for other candidates.

“The difference is that today we have a record to defend compared to 2017,” said Michèle Malivel, a 58-year-old local councilor who is the LREM main campaigner for Vaucluse. “But if [voters] stop talking, after a while they always agree [Macron] has done some good things.”

Malivel said the Macron camp has to deal with frustration over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and also faces the challenge of overcoming misinformation or a lack of knowledge among voters.

She also said the campaign was more aggressive than usual. Malivel found dozens of pro-Macron posters vandalized with graffiti and signs, even in officially designated areas, which is illegal. (The local RN campaign said it was not responsible.)

The big prize for the Macron camp are voters who chose the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first ballot. In Vaucluse, he won 20.75 percent of the vote, including a majority in the department’s largest city, Avignon.

Melenchon said supporters Giving Le Pen “not a single vote” in his concession speech after third place in the first ballot, but not explicitly supporting Macron.

Around a third of its electorate will vote for the incumbent President, show polls. But if they do, it will be without official encouragement from Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party.

Mathilde Caillé, the party’s leading activist in Avignon, the capital of Vaucluse, said she would not actively fight Le Pen. “It’s not our fault if the second round goes like this – it’s not our fault [campaigners] to take on that responsibility,” she explained.

Despite the lack of support from Mélenchon’s camp, Malivel said she was “quite confident” about the win. The team started the campaign earlier than usual in September – with posters, home visits and street market discussions.

Malivel oversees 100 active activists and 3,100 official supporters, and she said she’s adding five or six more every day — significantly more than in 2017. “Our strategy is elbow grease,” she said, “work, presence and more work.”

Le Pen camp confident

But local camp Le Pen is also optimistic about his chances – and claims to have more foot soldiers on his side. The RN has 200 active activists and over 5,000 official supporters in the Vaucluse, said the party’s leading activist Thierry d’Aigremont.

D’Aigremont said he was “fairly confident” about Le Pen’s prospects in the area, estimating their chances of beating Macron on the ground at around 55 percent. “It was a good campaign on the ground,” he said, explaining that the biggest concern for voters is the cost of living, which has been a key focus for Le Pen this time.

But the RN faces its own challenges as it tries to win voters who backed other candidates in the first round.

Le Pen went less well in Vaucluse and PACA as 2017, which D’Aigremont attributed to the rise of rival far-right candidate Eric Zemmour. The former expert gained 11.7 percent in PACA and over 10 percent in Vaucluse – compared to 7.1 percent nationwide.

Mathieu Gallard, research director at polling firm Ipsos, said while four out of five voters would likely support Zemmour Le Pen – as the candidate demanded in his concession speech – about 15 percent could abstain.

Le Pen tried to reach Zemmour voters in the area on local radio last week. “The project I present should be suitable for them,” she said.

Philippe Vardon, a party regional councilor in Nice, said he had made similar arguments with Zemmour voters, stressing the ideological closeness of the two camps.

Far right factor

The PACA region has long been fertile ground for the far right. Félicien Faury, a lecturer specializing in RN at Paris’ Dauphine University, said that “a significant deindustrialization since the 1980s and a strong migratory presence” that sparked a xenophobic backlash were important factors in their rise in the region.

Le Pen’s support base in the PACA — including small business owners and farm workers — is very different from her core support in northern France, where her constituents tend to come from poorer, working-class and left-wing backgrounds.

Faury also said that traditionally there is a “significant Pied Noir vote for the extreme right” and refers to people of French descent who were born in Algeria but left the country after it declared independence from France in 1962.

He added that anti-vaccination activists, who were particularly strong in the PACA, may also be more inclined to vote against Macron — particularly after the president said in January he wanted to “upset” them.

A question looming over the election at both regional and national levels is whether Muslim voters concerned about Le Pen and the xenophobia associated with the candidate and her party will support Macron in large numbers.

Parts of PACA are home to many French Muslims, including cities such as Avignon, Marseille and Carpentras.

Corresponding a survey69 percent of Muslims voted for Mélenchon in the first ballot, and Gallard argues that it is “quite possible that Mélenchon’s Muslim voters will take a strong stand against Le Pen” in response to measures such as a headscarf ban on the streets.

“I’m afraid for my family – my mother wears a headscarf,” said Smaïne Belkacem, a 21-year-old Muslim from Carpentras, who said he voted in favour Mélenchon would support Macron in the runoff. “I will do everything to ensure that Marine Le Pen does not win.” In the French village, the Macron and Le Pen camps set up their stands – POLITICO

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