PARIS – The finalists for France’s presidency, President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, traded blows on the last day of campaigning Friday as they tried to convince undecided voters why their political agenda — and not their rival's — is the right choice.
Macron, the center-right incumbent, laid into the nationalist challenger he is set to face in a Sunday runoff, accusing Le Pen of trying to divide France over Islam. Le Pen has proposed to ban Muslim headscarves in public and wants to give French citizens priority over foreigners in receiving housing and job benefits.
“The far right lives off fear and anger creating resentment. It says that excluding parts of society is the answer,” Macron told France Inter radio.
The two candidates made their final pitches to the French electorate as all campaigning and opinion polling must end by midnight on Friday. A first-round vote on April 10 led to Le Pen and Macron facing each other Sunday in a rematch of the 2017 presidential election runoff.
During his final campaign speech, delivered deep in France’s southern heartland, Macron described the election as a “referendum for or against a secular, united, indivisible Republic." He presented himself as a guardian of democratic values and the rule of law, and hinted that Le Pen posed a threat to freedom of expression.
Le Pen, who was behind Macron in the latest opinion polls, campaigned in her northern France stronghold in a last-ditch effort to close the gap. In a a gritty mood, she lashed out at Macron's planned pensions reform, which she described as an effort to make the French work forever.
“The French, with Emmanuel Macron, will end up with life," Le Pen said. “This reform of Emmanuel Macron is a deep social injustice."
A big question marks is how many of France's 48.7 million eligible voters won't cast ballots because of their aversion to both Macron and Le Pen, a choice often colloquially compared to deciding “between the plague and cholera.”
Macron acknowledged that Le Pen had alacrity and resonance among some voters, adding that “she has managed to draw on some of what we did not manage to do, on some of the things I did not manage to do to pacify some of the anger, respond quickly to what voters want.”
In a bid to seduce working-class voters who cast some 7.7 million votes for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, Macron has watered down a campaign pledge to progressively raise the retirement age in France to 65.
Macron, a former banker depicted by critics as friend to the rich and oppressor of the poor, now says he will consult with unions before deciding on the new legal retirement age.
Macron received a warm welcome in Figeac, where Mélenchon came in second place in the first round of voting. but suddenly paused in his speech to address protesters who deployed a banner opposing the privatization of state services.
Macron told them he did the opposite during the coronavirus pandemic and exhorted them to think about their right to protest before they cast their ballot on Sunday.
“You should congratulate yourselves for living in a democracy where you can challenge an acting president, a candidate," Macron said. “And I hope it can continue. Because on the 24th of April, with another candidate, it will be a different choice."
Earlier, Le Pen was in Etaples, at a marketplace near Le Touquet — a pointed choice on the final day of campaigning given that it is the constituency in which Macron himself votes.
The National Rally leader displayed a combative spirit following a bitter televised debate with Macron this week that buoyed some of her poll numbers.
Speaking on C-News, Le Pen called on the French to read her manifesto and wake up to the failures of Macron's five-year term. She responded to criticism that her policies did not hold up under scrutiny.
“I call on the French to check for themselves and form an opinion by reading what I propose to do to respond to the rampage that was Emmanuel Macron,” she said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the French election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022