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French presidential race tightens, with far-right challenger nipping at Macron's heels

President Emmanuel Macron is ahead in the polls, but Marine Le Pen has closed the gap heading into the first round of voting on Sunday.
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PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron looks set to face off against the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in an increasingly narrow fight for re-election, opinion polls suggest before the first round of voting on Sunday.

French voters will choose among 12 candidates, and the two with the most votes will face each other in a second round two weeks later, on April 24.

Polls suggest that the most likely outcome will be a rerun of the 2017 election, when Macron beat Le Pen, 66 percent to 33 percent, in the second round. 

Macron is ahead in opinion polls of both rounds of voting. The polling companies Ipsos and Sopra Steria on Thursday put Macron firmly in the lead with 26.5 percent of the vote — but Le Pen is close behind, at 23 percent, and closing the gap. He was 16 percentage points behind Macron at the start of March.

A poll on Friday from research firm Elabe showed the margin getting even tighter with Macron on 26 percent in the first round and Le Pen one point behind at 25 percent.

Analysts have described the French electorate as volatile and unpredictable, with resentment at the Paris-based ruling political class strongly felt by both right-wing and left-wing voters. Low turnout is widely expected.

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If Le Pen makes it to the second round, her chances of winning are real and appear to be growing: Elabe's poll on Friday put Macron marginally ahead in the second round with 51 percent.

Her party, formerly the National Front and now called the National Assembly, has sought to soften its image and appear more moderate.

As former Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it in a newspaper op-ed: “Marine Le Pen can be elected President of the Republic. It’s one to midnight.”

“There is a large degree of disillusion and anger in regards to Macron as the incumbent president,” said Philippe Marlière, a professor of European politics at the University of Central London. “He’s been doing well with the economy according to some, but not everyone in France agrees with that, particularly the worse off who have abandoned Macron.”

Le Pen has won support by focusing on the cost of living. But her passage to the second round is not assured, and Ipsos said Wednesday she could face a challenge from radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was polling at 16.5 percent in first round votes on Thursday. He is making third presidential run and supports the populist yellow vests protest movement.

Macron is vulnerable on the left: Mélenchon’s supporters could be so motivated by their distaste for the incumbent's economic reforms that they add to Le Pen’s vote in the second round.

A much-discussed challenge from the far-right TV personality Eric Zemmour has failed to make a dent in Le Pen’s bid for the presidency, in large part because of his longstanding support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and some radical anti-immigration proposals. Zemmour even initially said he was against accepting Ukrainian refugees in France after the war began, although he softened his stance to say Ukrainians with family in France could be considered.

Thursday's poll put Zemmour at just 8.5 percent of first round votes, with right-wing voters shifting away from him and to Le Pen. 

Jean-Marc Folliet, 66, a French businessman who lives in the western suburbs of Paris, is one supporter Le Pen can count on.

“I made up my mind a few months ago. I am going to vote for Marine Le Pen for sure. She blew her chances in the last presidential election with a lousy debate,” he told NBC News. “Le Pen has changed her image and proven her resilience and shown her experience.” 

Folliet, who calls himself a “hard conservative” and holds Eurosceptic views, said he was tempted by Zemmour because of his frankness but lost interest as his polling figures dipped.

“Marine Le Pen has made a comeback and will definitely run off against Macron in the second round," he said. "It will be very close and even if she does not win, her strong showing will impact the next parliamentary elections."

Macron has been urging his supporters not to believe his polling lead and is desperate to avoid any complacency among liberals and center-right voters, telling supporters in Paris last week that the extremist threat was greater now than in recent years and even in recent months. He admitted in a French TV interview this week that he had not done enough to stem the rise of the far-right.

Currently, those saying they intend to vote for Le Pen and Zemmour combined is greater than that of the six left-wing candidates. Previously people may have voted tactically against far-right candidates — but this time, that could change.

In 2002, Jacques Chirac won a landslide 82 percent victory over Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, in a swell of opposition to his hardline anti-immigration stance.

“People on the left voted en masse for him, not because they wanted to support him but as an anti-fascist vote to stop the far-right,” Marlière said.

“This anti-fascist reflex now seems to be fading away because if Le Pen gets to the second round that will be the third time a far-right candidate has got to the second round,” he said.

“And some people may be saying ‘We’re getting fed up of doing that, every time we vote for the liberal, conservative candidate, what does he do? He doesn’t listen to us.’”