Le Pen and Macron woo Paris as French election enters final stretch

The French presidential election’s two frontrunners held competing campaign rallies in Paris on Monday as one of the tightest and most unpredictable races in decades entered its final frantic stretch.

With polls suggesting any two of four candidates could make the runoff, centrist Emmanuel Macron packed out the 20,000-seat Bercy arena while the far-right’s Marine Le Pen aimed for a capacity 6,000 crowd at the Zenith concert hall later.

“Do you know what’s going to happen next Sunday?” Macron demanded of a cheering, Marseillaise-roaring crowd, the largest of his campaign so far. “We are going to win, and it will be the beginning of a new France.”

Despite his supporters’ confidence, however, the rollercoaster race has narrowed dramatically. Just days from Sunday’s first round of voting and with up to a third of the electorate still undecided, the result is wide open.

The latest polls show Macron and Le Pen clinging on to the narrowest of leads on 22% to 23%, while a late surge by the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and scandal-hit rightwinger François Fillon appears to be holding, putting both on between 19% and 21%.

Overtly pro-European, Macron promised to represent an “open, confident, winning France”, in contrast with his far-right and far-left rivals, who he said wanted to isolate the country from the rest of the world.

“Everywhere, we feel the temptation of barbarism ready to surge in other guises … No, we will not let them do it,” Macron told his supporters. Implicitly referring to Fillon, who is under investigation for abuse of public funds, he suggested some were running for the presidency in order to gain judicial immunity.

About 400 protesters marched from northern Paris on Monday afternoon to near the Zenith concert hall, where Le Pen’s evening rally was scheduled to take place. Police used teargas to dispel a group of more violent demonstrators, but no arrests were made, officials said.

Mélenchon, a former Socialist minister and radical Eurosceptic, spent five cheery hours on Monday chugging across the capital from north to south on a canal barge, stopping off at several spots along the way to greet supporters and ending up at the national library.

His late polling surge, and the prospect of him facing off against the equally anti-European Le Pen in the 7 May runoff, prompted the outgoing president, François Hollande, to urge voters and politicians this weekend to “preserve Europe instead of scapegoating it”.

Mélenchon told supporters he was not seeking to pull France out of the EU, but would do so if other member states did not agree to negotiate fundamental reforms. “European treaties are destroying Europe,” he said.

“I am not putting it in danger, I’m not the one who made Britain leave, I’m not the one making trouble in all EU countries, I’m not provoking nationalist feeling everywhere … It’s Europe’s way of organising that’s pushing people that way.”

The race’s early favourite, Fillon, whose support has edged back up after plunging earlier in the campaign after allegations of a fake jobs scandal, was in Nice to talk law and order in the southern city where 86 people where killed in a truck attack last summer.

Hit by revelations that he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for allegedly very little work as his parliamentary assistant, the centre-right former prime minister has promised to “surprise everyone” by making it to the runoff.

With Le Pen also under investigation for misusing public funds, this time at the European parliament, Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, sought on Monday to dismiss persistent rumours that he too may have something to hide.

Unnamed political rivals would try to spread fake news about him in the election’s closing stages, the independent centrist predicted in an interview with BFM TV, denying he had any money hidden away in offshore accounts.

“I’ve always paid all my tax in France and had all my accounts in France,” said Macron, who resigned from Hollande’s government last year to launch his En Marche! movement and has campaigned as the candidate “neither of the left nor of the right”.

Macron told the broadcaster: “I’ve heard it all, that I have a secret hidden inheritance, that I’ve got offshore accounts. Why? Because in this campaign there are two candidates with their own real legal problems … It’s all false, totally false.”

A French anti-corruption group, Anticor, raised concerns in March about supposed discrepancies in Macron’s disclosure of assets, but the country’s public transparency watchdog said it had found no inconsistencies.

Several polls modelling possible second-round permutations have suggested that Macron would win the runoff whoever he is against, while Le Pen would lose. Mélenchon would defeat everyone except Macron, and Fillon lose to all except Le Pen.

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