LE HAVRE, France — As an ardent supporter of President Emmanuel Macron of France, Nicole Liot was all smiles after seeing him at a recent campaign stop. But she was also worried about the final round of the French election on Sunday. In her life, she had never seen such an intense dislike of a president among some French people.
“There are presidents who weren’t hated like that, even though they weren’t saints,” Liot, 80, said, positing that what became known as Macron’s “small phrases” fueled the loathing. “Like when he said to someone, ‘Are you looking for a job? Just cross the street and you’ll find one.’”
As anti-Macron protesters burned tires and covered the sky with smoke over the northwestern city of Le Havre, Liot added: “Perhaps people don’t forgive him for these mistakes in language and attitude.”
No French president has been the object of such intense antipathy among significant segments of the population as Macron – the result, experts say, of his image as an elitist out of touch with ordinary French people whose pensions and labor protections he has threatened. in its efforts to make the economy more investor-friendly.
How deep this hatred will be a critical – perhaps even decisive – factor in the election against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen. Recent polls give Macron a lead of around 10 percentage points – larger than he was at some points in the campaign, but just a third of his margin of victory five years ago.
“Macron and the hatred he stirs up is unprecedented,” said Nicolas Domenach, a veteran political journalist who has covered the last five French presidents and is co-author of “Macron: Why So Much Hate?”, a recently published book. “It stems from a particular alignment. He is the president of the rich and the president of contempt.”
Undoubtedly, Macron could end up winning re-election despite his unpopularity. Even if a wave of voters doesn’t end up voting per him, what matters to him is that enough voters come out to vote against her – to build a “dam” against the extreme right.
It is a long-established strategy to build up the so-called “republican front” against a political force – his party, the National Rally, formerly the National Front – that is seen as a threat to France’s democratic foundations.
But given the choice between a president they find contemptuous and a far-right candidate they find detestable, many French voters may simply stay at home, or even vote for Le Pen, tipping the scales in a close election.
Every chance he gets, Le Pen has done his best to remind voters of “those terrible words” – “those words of disdain” – who now cling to Macron, as she did at a major campaign rally in the southern city. from Avignon last week.
“It’s the words of a power without empathy,” she said as the crowd booed.
Both she and Macron are vying in the final days of the campaign for voters who voted for other candidates in the first round of the April 10 presidential election, on which the election now depends.
Roland Lescure, a lawmaker and spokesman for Macron’s La République en Marche party, said he was convinced that the “rejection of Marine Le Pen” would be more potent than the antipathy for the president, which he acknowledged.
The rejection was not just from Le Pen’s person, he said, “but above all from an ideology, a political history and a platform, which, when read, is extremely harmful.”
But Le Pen was so confident of her growing appeal after taking calculated steps to soften her image that she even dared to use the term “dam” for herself – imploring voters six times at her rally to build a “dam against Macron”. . ”
The dam requests from both sides highlighted how the final vote boils down to an unpopularity contest: the least hated candidate wins.
That’s especially true in this race, which features the same finalists as in 2017. But if Le Pen was seen as a digger of far-right ideology at the time, in the current campaign she’s tried to feature a full-back.
And if Macron was once seen as a fresh face who inspired many with his promises to change an ossified France, this time he has been cast by his enemies as something of an evil king.
As Macron finally enters the fray, he is now being confronted with the raw emotions that have shaped much of his presidency.
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“I have never seen a president of the Fifth Republic as bad as you” a man told him during a campaign stoppage last week, accusing him of being “arrogant” and “disdainful” among other things. a Mr. A visibly irritated Macron made a circular motion around his right temple with his index finger.
In the deindustrialized and impoverished north – a stronghold of Le Pen – Macron is so unpopular that he even lost his hometown of Amiens in the first round. In a town in the region, Denain, a woman arrested him at a campaign parade with strong criticism about his presidency, his handling of the pandemic and schools.
“You are not living in the real world,” Macron told the woman, who, astonished, replied: “Aren’t we living in the real world? Are you telling us that, Mr. Macron?
In Argenteuil, an impoverished Paris suburb, Claudine Pasquier, a retired school secretary carrying two grocery bags, echoed Macron’s “little phrases” – such as when he called train stations places “where you find successful people and that are nothing” or your reference to “crazy amounts of dough” spent on benefits for the poor.
“We remember all these little phrases because they humiliated people,” Pasquier said. She had voted for Macron in 2017 but was now undecided, she added.
Pierre Rosanvallon, a historian and sociologist at the Collège de France, said the small sentences were “catastrophic” in forging Macron’s image and fueling the widespread feeling of disdain he said is a central factor in French politics and society today.
“It’s about the relationship between a disdainful elite and a society that is disdained,” he said.
Rosanvallon noted that “disdain” was also deep among Le Pen’s main supporters – although it is directed at migrants, foreigners and others perceived as socially inferior. Mrs. Le Pen said she will increase benefits for people like those who vote for her, taking them away from immigrants.
Mrs. Le Pen saw the power of this dynamic, Rosanvallon said, and understood that economic hardship was not just about money, but needed to be addressed “in terms of dignity, in terms of respect, in terms of a feeling of abandonment. ”
Lescure, a spokesman for Macron’s party, said much of the anger against the president was due to a misunderstanding of his style of government, which he compared to those of former presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand – two so-called Republican monarchs also regarded as distant.
“When he’s described as haughty, aloof and even arrogant, I think it’s also because his practice of power is much less popular in the sense of being people-oriented than others,” he said.
This alienated even many of the president’s previous supporters.
At Le Pen’s rally in Avignon, Rachida Saidj, 53, said she voted for Macron in 2017 as part of the dam against the far right. This time, she had voted for the Greens in the first round and – faced with a choice “between plague and cholera” – she planned to vote for Le Pen as part of the anti-Macron front.
“He said everything and the opposite, he despised many people,” Saidj said, adding that Macron acted like “a king”.
In Le Havre, another staunch Macron supporter, Bilel Benaouda, a 22-year-old student and aspiring businessman, was also worried. He had voted for Macron in the first round. But his brother and most people around him endorsed Mélenchon and now planned to stay home for the second round.
“Last time, the election was more anti-Le Pen,” said Benaouda. “But this time, it’s about anti-Le Pen and anti-Macron.”
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Le Havre, and Constant Méheut from Argenteuil and Avignon.