Emmanuel Macron’s big strategic dilemma came into view as soon as the exit poll came out after the first round of voting for the French presidential election, on 10 April. Once it was confirmed that the incumbent centrist would once again be facing the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the run-off round, he needed to find a way to appeal to the 20 per cent of voters who chose the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third.
The result of the second round on 24 April will largely depend on them. Le Pen’s path to victory relies on enough of Mélenchon’s supporters staying at home and choosing neither candidate, Macron’s on convincing enough of them to lend him their vote to keep out the far right.
It was within that context that Macron chose the southern port city of Marseille, where Mélenchon topped the first round of voting, to give a speech billed as his offer to sceptical left-wingers. If they could not agree with the president’s liberal economics and hardline stance on immigration, perhaps they could find common ground on the environment.
One senior ally of Macron in parliament said before the speech that the challenge for the president was that the environment and security were two areas on which Macron “would always be outbid by more radical candidates”. The plan, then, was to poach environmental policies from Mélenchon and Yannick Jadot, the Green leader, to convince left-wingers that the strong results for the left overall had not been for naught.
Speaking in front of the nineteenth-century Pharo Palace, with the Old Port of Marseille as a backdrop, Macron tried to draw a clear line in the sand between him and Le Pen. “Even when incompetent, she is climate sceptic,” he told his audience, accusing his rival of wanting to dismantle every wind turbine in France and drop the objective of reaching carbon neutrality. “The far right exploits the anxiety of people who feel that they cannot see any future with decarbonisation,” he added.
Promising “total renewal” and to go “twice as fast” in decarbonisation, Macron said that the environment would be at the heart of his second term. “My next prime minister will be directly charged with economic planning,” he promised, adopting a key Mélenchon pledge. Decarbonisation “affects every sector, all spending, every investment — it is the policy of policies,” he added.
Macron reiterated his pledge to make France the first big country to quit fossil fuels. He will charge a new minister for economic planning with ending the use of coal, oil and gas, he said, by drawing up a plan for “energy sobriety”. Carbon neutrality would be achieved by a massive investment in renewable energy, complemented by additional nuclear power.
Another minister will be tasked with working with local officials to ensure changes are welcomed on the ground, a promise designed to avoid another movement in the style of the gilets jaunes, which began in 2017 as a protest against a hike in fuel taxes.
The president pledged to increase solar power capacity tenfold by 2050 and build 50 offshore windfarms. Renewable capacity would be supplemented by six more nuclear reactors, to ensure production continues whatever the weather. With this promise, Macron distinguished himself from the anti-nuclear Mélenchon, arguing that he preferred zero-carbon nuclear power to burning fossil fuels to ensure consistency of power generation. A pledge to purify the air in all public buildings was nabbed from Jadot.
While the bulk of the speech was dedicated to the environment, Macron also spent some time attacking what he characterised as an unreformed far right. The far right posed a danger to freedom of the press, gender equality and wealth equality, he said. Le Pen “wants a referendum on the death penalty” and to ban Muslims from wearing veils, while she would also leave the EU and ally with Russia, he added, urging anyone planning not to vote in the second round to resist giving in to “relativism”. “Don’t believe that the candidate you don’t like is the same as the far right,” he said.
The environment is probably the most obvious dividing line with Le Pen for Macron to choose. Yet the renewal and change Macron promised in Marseille will be a difficult sell to many left-wing voters, who will see a vote for him as endorsing five more years of the same economic liberalism they loathe. The president hopes, however, that his adoption of Mélenchon’s flagship policy of environmental planning will convince enough of them that he can offer them some of what they want on this issue, which is where they share the most common ground.
Outside the rally a small gilets jaunes gathering stood to protest the president. One of those present cited Macron’s vaccine passports and said that she hoped Muslims, who have sometimes been more wary of vaccination, would choose Le Pen, because “at least with her there is hope”. Damien, 29, who had earlier briefly disrupted Macron’s speech before being escorted out of the venue, said that he would probably abstain in the second round. The president “is a liar and a traitor”, he said.
Inside the rally, the mood among the crowd was more upbeat. Polls show that Macron is on course for victory, albeit a narrower one than his win over Le Pen in 2017. Sophia, 40, said she had reluctantly voted for Macron in 2017 but was convinced by his record and was now an enthusiastic supporter. “The results — on the economy, unemployment, the handling of the Covid-19 crisis — speak for themselves.”
Many in the audience in Marseille, a city shaped by migration from countries such as Algeria, cited Le Pen’s pledge to ban veils in public places as the reason for their support of Macron. “My family has been here for five generations,” said Zohra Hamani, the president of Les Bon Samaritains Fisabiliah, a charity. “I am as French as Mrs Le Pen — perhaps more so.”
“If she wins, I will return to Algeria rather than take off my veil,” said Ghania Kebir, before correcting herself. “No, I will stay here and continue to wear it. This is my country too.”
[See also: The evolution of Marine Le Pen]