PARIS â€” Marine Le Pen’s early campaign to protect consumers and cut fuel prices appears to be striking a cord as the war in Ukraine prompts money worries among voters in France.
It has also forced Eric Zemmour, her challenger on the far right, to play catch-up on the economy and suggest a battery of measures over the last couple of days to help protect French consumers.
The French are facing a spike in energy prices, with fuel costing over â‚¬2 per liter on average and inflation at its highest since 2008. There are worries that the worse is to come as the war drags on and the EU adopts tougher sanctions against Russia.
While President Emmanuel Macron has consolidated his advance over other contenders in the race ahead of Aprilâ€™s presidential election, the battle is raging on the right for the second spot in the runoff vote. And Le Pen appears to be gaining an edge.
According to POLITICOâ€™s Poll of Polls, Le Pen would win 17 percent of the vote compared with 12 percent each for Zemmour and for the conservative candidate ValÃ©rie PÃ©cresse. Macron, who has been at pains to try to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop the war, has surged ahead on 30 percent of the vote.
Zemmour upset voting predictions late last year when he unexpectedly entered the presidential race and temporarily upstaged Le Pen. While both candidates have been campaigning on far-right themes such as immigration and security, Le Penâ€™s National Rally has also tried to appeal to working classes with catchy proposals on welfare and buying power.
Money in your pocket
Over the last couple of days, Le Pen and Zemmour have been battling hard to convince voters they are best placed to defend the interests of the ordinary French.
Zemmour in particular has displayed some signs of desperation, after the defection of Le Penâ€™s popular niece Marion MarÃ©chal failed to boost his ratings. On Sunday, he was caught pretending to strike up conversations over fuel prices with fellow drivers at a petrol station near the city of Montauban in southwestern France. It later emerged that the encounters were staged, and the other drivers were supporters.
This month, the former journalist, who has embraced a pro-business approach to the economy, also promised he would cap the price of fuel at â‚¬1.80 per liter and give nurses a 10 percent pay increase if he was elected president.
â€œWe are paying attention to what really interests the French, real-life stuff, like their buying power, trips in the car,â€ said a Zemmour aide, who denied the candidate was changing course.
â€œWe have always spoken about [buying power] and luckily for us itâ€™s not those who promise more, whether itâ€™s on pensions or on the minimum wage, who are the most convincing,â€ he said, referring to Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc MÃ©lenchon. He added that their main pitch was to cut business taxes to boost wages.
Meanwhile, during a political show with other presidential candidates on Tuesday, Le Pen appeared pugnacious and confident and reminded voters she has been campaigning to cut taxes on fuel since September.
The far-right leader ran into difficulty when her past pro-Russian statements were scrutinized when Putin launched the assault on Ukraine last month. But she appears to have regained her footing by challenging EU sanctions on Russia â€” not on principle, but due to their impact on the French economy.
â€œMy obsession is to protect the French people,â€ she told a studio audience on French TV TF1. â€œI do not want them to lose their jobs … be unable to heat their homes, have enough to eat or use their cars,â€ she said, with reference to fuel price increases and possible cuts in exports of Russian fertilizers.
Le Pen has been campaigning to cut VAT on fuel, gas and electricity from 20 percent to 5.5 percent, cut France’s TV license fee and give tax breaks to employers who give their employees pay rises. National Rally party insiders say they feel vindicated by the trends in the economy and will carry on campaigning in the same vein.
â€œItâ€™s always rewarding to find out that we saw a trend emerging, rather than missed it,â€ said Jean-Philippe Tanguy, Le Penâ€™s campaign director. â€œMarine Le Pen has been campaigning on cost of living issues for a long time, while those who left to join Zemmour dismissed them as uninteresting â€¦ Now heâ€™s improvising solutions on buying power.”
But there’s no sign Zemmour is giving up, despite his poll ratings.
His campaign team hope that disaffected National Rally voters will stay away from the polls and that their champion will overtake Le Pen in the last weeks of the campaign. Zemmourâ€™s party Reconquest! and its allies are scaling up the fight, with 100 political rallies planned until the election.
Juliette Droz contributed reporting.
This article was updated with comments from Jean-Philippe Tanguy, Marine Le Penâ€™s campaign director.