Macron gets the jitters in the country from Le Pen – POLITICO

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PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is showing signs of nervousness as he ramps up his campaign ahead of the second round of France’s presidential election.

On a visit to the northern city of Denain on Monday, the French president made missteps and appeared unprepared when he encountered disaffected citizens.

Polls point to a very close runoff between Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen. The incumbent is going into the campaign with enthusiasm, having taken a light approach ahead of the first round.

But his first visit to enemy territory did not go well.

One of France’s poorest cities, Denain is just a short drive from Le Pen’s voting estate in the rust belt of north-eastern France, where the National Rally has thrived in recent years. Something 41 percent of voters in Denain opted for Le Pen in the first ballot.

Hammered out by locals over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his plans to reform France’s pension system, Macron appeared speechless on the former and appeared to be backing down previous commitments on the latter.

After a woman objected to school closures during lockdown, Macron awkwardly replied that she didn’t live “in the real world”, adding that schools reopened very quickly after the pandemic began in 2020.

“I don’t live in the real world?” The woman, who works as a dental assistant in Denain, replied, “People will laugh in front of their TVs.”

The encounter encapsulates the difficulties Macron faces as he dives into the election campaign to prove he’s in touch with ordinary people and gives the impression he’s desperate to make up for lost time.

Macron only officially announced his presidential candidacy last month, delaying his campaign after the war in Ukraine. When he finally entered the campaign, he held only one rally in Paris and made campaign stops in areas occupied by allies.

Meanwhile, six months ago, Le Pen launched a low-key tour of France, visiting small towns and villages and campaigning on issues affecting ordinary French people, such as the cost of living and jobs.

In Sunday’s first ballot, Macron topped Le Pen with 27.8 percent of the vote, compared with 23.1 percent for the far-right leader. But polls are predicting a much closer race than their last duel in 2017, as many rural and working-class voters are expected to swing behind Le Pen on April 24.

With all left-wing candidates eliminated, Macron and Le Pen try to win over left-wing voters. Twenty-one percent of voters backed far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, and they appear split between abstaining in the second round and supporting Le Pen or Macron.

Reversal in pensions

On Monday things went from bad to worse for Macron. The French President appeared to reverse his flagship proposal to raise the statutory retirement age to 65 and introduce a minimum state pension of €1,100.

In Denain, Macron told locals he was willing to adjust the timeframe and retirement age to unite the people behind his reforms.

“I’m willing to change the timeline and say that we don’t necessarily have to do the reform by 2030 if I feel like people are worrying about it too much,” he said.

“I can’t say I want to unite people, and then when I go and listen to people, I tell them I won’t back down,” he said, adding that there would be concessions for workers in difficult jobs.

But pensions are at the heart of Macron’s re-election bid, and his hints at compromise seemed to surprise his camp. An aide to the French president told Playbook Paris on Monday that Macron’s comments were not a change in policy, before backing down a few hours later. The clues also raise questions about Macron’s long-term commitment to his own campaign platform.

With Le Pen’s offer to lower the retirement age to 62, Macron is under pressure to offer some compromises on pensions, particularly for unskilled workers who often start their careers earlier.

On Tuesday said his far-right rival French radio France Inter that his concessions were “a maneuver” to attract left-wing voters.

“I don’t trust Emmanuel Macron at all, not when there are ten days left until the second round,” Le Pen told journalists.

Macron has not denied that he is ready to change his reform plans after the results of the first round. But having championed a pro-business, pro-business agenda during his last term in office, he must now convince both Le Pen and Mélenchon voters that he has a solid plan for them too. Macron gets the jitters in the country from Le Pen - POLITICO

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