By Constant Méheut
On a stage erected on lush green lawns overlooking the sun-soaked Mediterranean port of Marseille, President Emmanuel Macron declared Saturday to a crowd of supporters, “The politics that I will carry out in the next five years will be environmental, or will not be!”
It was an ambitious promise for a president whose green policies have been criticized at repeated climate protests, condemned by courts for “inaction” and marked by failure to meet goals. But above all, Macron’s vow was a direct appeal to voters to his left, who hold the key to a final victory in the second round of the presidential election — and for whom climate has become a key issue.
Macron devoted about three-quarters of his hour-and-a-half speech to environmental issues. He promised to appoint ministers responsible for long-term environmental planning, to plant 140 million trees by 2030 and to rapidly cut dependence on oil and gas by developing nuclear and renewable energy.
“Inaction — not for me!” he told a cheering crowd of some 4,000 people who gathered in the Parc du Pharo, on the heights of Marseille, for what was possibly Macron’s last rally before the April 24 vote.
The event symbolized Macron’s strategy for the runoff between the centrist incumbent and his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen: wooing the left with progressive policies and campaigning in working-class cities where he is trying to shed his image as an aloof president detached from everyday realities. If large numbers of left-wing voters stay home for the second round of voting, or migrate to Le Pen’s camp, it could spell serious trouble for Macron.
Stewart Chau, an analyst for polling firm Viavoice, said Macron’s main goal was to “seek voters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon,” a far-left candidate who came in third overall in the first round of voting — but first in Marseille, with 31% of the vote.
In September, the president unveiled a multibillion-euro plan to tackle crime and poverty in Marseille.
Promising a “complete renewal” if he is reelected, Macron also used his speech to attack Le Pen, accusing her of wanting to curtail freedom of the press, challenge gender equality and lead France out of the European Union. He is trying to revive the “dam” that mainstream voters have long formed by voting for anyone over a Le Pen — either his current opponent or her father, Jean-Marie, leaders of the French far right since the 1970s.
Saturday’s rally capped an intense week of campaigning for Macron, touring the country since Monday to make up for a lackluster initial campaign. Visiting only places where Le Pen or Mélenchon came out on top in the first round, he is risking engaging with angry residents in an attempt to show that he, too, can feel their pain.
By contrast, Le Pen, who has long striven to soften her public image, has been more risk-averse, limiting her campaign trips this past week. Instead, she has tried to cement her credibility with two news conferences on her institutional overhaul proposals and her foreign policy agenda.
At a rally Thursday in the southern city of Avignon, Le Pen mentioned immigration only three times, despite it being the cornerstone of her platform. She has proposed deporting foreigners after they have been unemployed for one year, giving priority to native-born French for social housing and benefits, and abolishing the right to citizenship through birth in France.
Her supporters were more blunt. “She still wants to kick out the immigrants,” said Aline Vincent, a French flag in her right hand, who attended Le Pen’s rally along with about 4,000 others. “But she doesn’t say it the same way.”
In Marseille, Daniel Beddou said he “was very worried” about the rise of the far right. Holding a European flag in his left hand, he said he was pleased by Macron’s environmental plans. He said they embodied the president’s “at the same time” approach, referring to his habit of borrowing policies from the left and right.
As he appeals to the 7.7 million voters who backed Mélenchon in the first round and appear to hold the key to a final victory, Macron has toned down some of his proposals, like a plan to raise the legal retirement age to 65 from 62, which he now says could be softened.
On Saturday, he also insisted on long-term “environmental planning” — a concept that was a cornerstone of Mélenchon’s platform — promising to appoint a minister “directly responsible” for it, assisted by two ministers in charge of the energy and environmental transition.
“There’s a real willingness to speak to a working-class electorate, a left-wing electorate that we lacked in the first round,” said Sacha Houlié, a lawmaker and spokesperson for Macron’s campaign.
To what extent Macron’s last-minute leftward tilt will yield results at the ballot box remains to be seen.
Many voters remain disillusioned by Macron’s tack to the right in recent years. François Dosse, a French historian and philosopher who was one of Macron’s most enthusiastic supporters in the last election, said his tough stance on immigration and against Islamic extremism amounted to “recycling the fears of the far right” and indirectly lending credence to Le Pen’s discourse.
“It’s about playing Russian roulette,” Dosse said of Macron’s strategy of triangulating France’s electoral landscape. “And it’s a dangerous game in which one can lose — and lose democracy.”
Macron won 28% of the vote last week, to 23% for Le Pen and 22% for Mélenchon, with a host of others trailing behind. Already, some voters are considering sitting out the runoff, disappointed by the incumbent’s record.
Polls show that only one-third of Mélenchon’s supporters would back Macron in the runoff to keep Le Pen from power, with the rest split between a vote for Le Pen and abstention.
But the first week of the runoff campaign has seemed to favor Macron. Voter surveys show that his lead in the second round has widened. The French president would get 56% of the vote, compared with 44% for Le Pen — his largest lead since late March.
In Marseille, many Mélenchon supporters like Nate Gasser, 26, said they would hold their noses and back Macron to defeat Le Pen. “It annoys me to do that, but we’ll vote for Macron,” he said, insisting that it was not “a vote of adherence.”
“And after that,” he said, “we’ll take to the streets to protest.”