With just days to go until the French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron is edging towards the Élysée Palace, but the frontrunner still faces challenges ahead of Sunday’s second-round vote.
The 39-year-old independent centrist has led a remarkable campaign, defying the traditional mainstream parties courtesy of his En Marche! movement. For many, however, the campaign has become less about backing Macron, and instead voting against his far-right National Front rival, Marine Le Pen.
No wave of universal popularity
Dominic Thomas, professor of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA, believes the electorate faces a similar scenario to 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front and Marine’s father, made it through to the second round.
On that occasion, the country banded together to vote for Jacques Chirac and ensure that the far-right candidate was crushed.
Thomas says a “downtrodden” electorate is now facing a vote in which it is opposing Le Pen, rather than throwing its support behind Macron.
“The problem is, yet again, like in 2002, the French electorate is being morally blackmailed, not so much to vote for a Macron they may really be fond of but against Le Pen,” he said.
“There’s a risk there that undermines the electoral process in terms of the final outcome.”
Macron has been endorsed by current President Francois Hollande, Republican candidate Francois Fillon and the Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon, but he is not universally liked.
Often seen as the “elite,” he’s viewed as being part of the establishment and out of touch with the public.
A former economy minister who made his millions as an investment banker, Macron has been attacked from both the left and the right for his perceived arrogance.
Thomas says that while Macron, a pro-EU, pro-integration candidate, is likely to win the election, he will not be riding a wave of universal popularity.
“It’s not the sort of feelgood that was in the USA after the Bush presidency, with so many people (having) hope that Obama was going to come along and save the world,” he added.
“There was this change we can believe in. With Macron, it might change that some people would like to believe in but it’s going to be a lot of ‘show me’ that goes along with it.”
Both candidates have endured a difficult week, with Macron criticized for his first-round victory celebrations. He was also overshadowed in his hometown by Le Pen, who sent him into a spin at the Whirlpool tumble dryer factory.
While she received cheers and posed for selfies, Macron faced a far more hostile reception when he entered the factory after spending much of the day meeting with the town’s chambers of commerce.
But Le Pen has had problems of her own. Last week, the man asked to lead France’s National Front party in her temporary absence was forced to step aside after being accused of Holocaust denial.
The National Front has been dogged by accusations of Holocaust denial throughout the campaign.
In March, Benoit Loeuillet, a National Front regional councilor in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, was suspended after being caught on a secret camera claiming mass murder had not taken place during the Holocaust.
Then, earlier this month, Le Pen sparked outrage by suggesting France was not responsible for the wartime round-up of Jews who were sent to Nazi death camps.
Her stance is at odds with former president Chirac and current premier Hollande, who have both apologized for the role played by French police in the rounding up of 13,000 Jews at the Vel d’Hiv cycling track in Paris, ordered by the Nazis in July 1942.
Le Pen’s latest comments appear to have strengthened the determination of the Macron campaign.
Ygal El Harrar, head of En Marche! in the United Kingdom, says the movement will not only campaign “against a racist party” but also to convince voters that they should vote for Macron rather than against Le Pen.
“We cannot accept that a country like France can have a racist party gain nearly 40% of the vote,” he told CNN.
“We know that we have a challenge to change a vote from one which is against Le Pen to one which is one for Macron.”
Convincing the far-left
One of Macron’s toughest tasks is to persuade those who backed the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to transfer their support to him.
“The problem for Macron is that there are still may voters out there who refer to him as the ‘banker,” Emmanuelle Schön-Quinlivan, lecturer in European politics at University College, Cork, told CNN.
“That image of him as a banker portrays him as being disconnected from reality and feeds into the notion that he doesn’t understand the so-called little people.
“Macron is speaking to those who are well educated and live in cities. But he doesn’t connect with those living in rural France and former industrialized areas, which are now struggling due to de-industrialization such as former coal mining companies in North and east of France.
Macron’s final attempt to persuade the electorate that he is the man to lead France will come on Wednesday, when he and Le Pen go head-to-head in the final television debate.
Unlike Chirac, who refused to debate Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002, Macron is adamant he will not shy away from the challenge.
“It is very clear and we’ve known for months that Macron is really looking forward to this debate,” Schön-Quinlivan said.
“The old attitude of not arguing with extremists because they don’t commit to republican values has only fed a monster of populism and made it look as if the establishment refuses to engage.
“Macron wants to take Le Pen on, argument by argument but he needs to perform. That’s the key.”
As election day approaches, there are concerns that some voters may just stay at home.
“We know the the first big challenge is turnout,” En Marche! in the UK campaign leader El Harrar said, citing the Macron campaign’s biggest concern.
“Even though our candidate came first in the opening round we have never thought this was going to be easy,” he said.
“It’s very important for us to convince people that this is the project which is right for France.
CNN’s James Masters wrote from London. CNN’s Melissa Bell and Jim Bitterman contributed to this article.