His presidency is in many ways linked to Marseille, which he compared on Saturday to a “laboratory of the republic” and which he described as his “city of hearts”. He devoted inordinate attention to its social and economic woes, promising billions in investments, with the aspiration of turning it into a “Mediterranean capital”.
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But in a sign of the controversy of his presidency, Macron finds himself looking for support here. As he called on Marseille voters to grant him a second term on Saturday, protesters booed and hissed in the distance, with posters comparing him to a vampire or showing him shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron supporters gathered around him in a park, but much of it remained empty, and they sometimes appeared less energetic than supporters of far-right leader Le Pen in recent days. In the first round of the election last weekend, Macron finished second in Marseille, behind the far-left candidate. It gained little ground from its performance in the first round of 2017 while the far right made significant inroads, as in the whole of France.
Macron, 44, remains the favorite to win the second round of France’s vote next Sunday, which would mark the first re-election of an incumbent French president since 2002. But Le Pen now seems closer to the presidency than ever. In many ways, Macron’s struggle to win more voters in Marseille reflects the broader issues that have hampered his campaign and presented opportunities for his challenger.
“If you look at what he promised in 2017 in terms of results, he got the most,” said Joseph de Weck, the author of a book on the Macron presidency, citing a fierce defense of the Union Europe and a low unemployment rate in France, which were the main concerns five years ago. “But the way he introduced these changes and was successful in enforcing these policies was completely different from what he promised,” de Weck said.
When Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, launched his own political movement in 2016, he promised to bring a new style of politics to the Élysée, with no obligations to established parties. He presented himself as a progressive, pro-EU anti-establishment candidate, and pledged to make French politics more representative of the electorate and transparent to the public.
His victory over Le Pen in 2017 came shortly after the United States elected Donald Trump and Britain voted to leave the European Union. In France and elsewhere, many voters hoped that Macron’s election would mark the end of a nationalist streak.
In the years that followed, Macron remained a staunch defender of the European Union, made the French economy more competitive, and seemed keen to see France play an outsized role on the international stage, including during the war in Ukraine. “In the current context, I think you have to have a tough president who has experience,” said Denis Morandeau, 48, a supporter of the rally.
But domestically, his style of politics has often been described as opaque and deaf to mounting criticism. “The price of success has been an incredibly top-down process,” de Weck said, “and there’s a lot of resentment” about that today.
In his speeches over the past five years, Macron has often emphasized national unity, equality and prosperity, themes he returned to during his Saturday event overlooking the old port of Marseille.
But after five years, those credentials rang hollow for many left-leaning voters on the bustling market streets of Marseille. This group of voters largely supported him against Le Pen five years ago. From now on, their choice between Macron, Le Pen or abstention is considered decisive for the outcome of the upcoming vote. Many said they worried that economic growth would come at the expense of social benefits and that Macron had embraced a conservative immigration and security framework.
Although he was partially elected by a center-left group, Macron has cracked down on foreign influences in French Muslim communities, passed controversial national security laws and supported a Minister of the Interior who made fun of Le Pen for being too “soft”.
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Last month, Macron surprised observers when he kicked off his re-election campaign with the unpopular rhetoric of raising the retirement age to 65. A few days later, amid growing criticism, he hinted that he wasn’t so sure anymore.
“The middle class is disappearing. It’s a disaster,” said Morgane Calmettes, 27, who said she would not vote in next weekend’s election. “He gave just a little money to schools, but a lot to the police. .”
Charlene Venzal, 40, who works with people in financial difficulty, said she had “seen no improvement” in her work as a result of her decisions. But she will most likely vote for him anyway to prevent a far-right victory, she said.
Criticism that Macron has been largely blind to the concerns of the middle class and people living in poverty has stuck with him throughout the campaign, despite heavy government support for French businesses during the pandemic that has helped save lives. jobs and allowed the country to recover further. quickly than some of its neighbours.
One of the reasons voters haven’t credited Macron more for such measures may be past remarks that have made him appear arrogant and insincere about helping ordinary people, despite some of his recent spending decisions. . In 2017, for examplehe said he wouldn’t give in to anyone, including the “lazy”.
“He represented that motto, if you really want it and try really hard, you can achieve anything,” de Weck said. “And it may have worked in his case. But for a large part of French society, it is only a lie, it is an illusion that is not reality.
In his speech in Marseille, Macron seems to have taken note of this. He attacked Le Pen, whose campaign has focused on inflation and the rising cost of living, for proposals he accused of deepening inequality. He highlighted his efforts to tackle the causes of social discontent in Marseille and elsewhere. And he signaled a willingness to do more to tackle climate change, a major concern among leftist voters who believe Macron has done too little to address the problem.
French voters are notorious for showing little forgiveness to incumbent presidents. But Macron’s campaign team in recent weeks seemed to be looking for exactly that, calling for some understanding of the difficult circumstances that shaped his presidency.
Before taking the stage on Saturday, his campaign played a video on large screens with dramatic music recalling the crises he has faced in recent years. His supporters watched in silence as scenes of violent Yellow Vest protests, coronavirus field hospitals overwhelmed and French troops withdrawn from Mali.
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Some of these crises were beyond his control, but the yellow vest movement, sparked by a proposed fuel tax hike, foreshadowed frustration with his presidency as early as 2018. Macron was able to quell the protests that rocked the country, partly by making concessions, but also by doing a listening tour across the country.
“Macron correctly diagnosed the Yellow Vests as a social movement, not a political one,” said Nicholas Dungan, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council. But what might have been a wake-up call is now widely seen as a missed chance to adapt its approach, both in style and substance. “He failed, in response, to offer an opportunity or even a hope,” Dungan said.
Marseille has some of the poorest neighborhoods in Europe and the backlog of government aid has been felt more strongly than most places in France. Three years after Macron hinted in 2017 that he would eradicate “medical deserts“, areas without access to hospitals or general practitioners, the problem had only worsened when the pandemic hit France in early 2020.
Macron announced last year that additional investment, including a substantial share for hospitals, is still considered insufficient by medical professionals who have seen multiple waves of coronavirus ravage underserved neighborhoods in Marseille over the past two last years.
“The will is clearly there and efforts have been made,” said Jean Luc Jouve, head of the Marseille hospital commission. “But what is needed is a clear paradigm shift” like “a Marshall Plan for Health”.
One of the people who filled the void is Slim Hadiji, a doctor from the north of Marseilles, who, in addition to his normal work, tried for months to address inequalities in vaccination by vaccinating people vulnerable to residence.
Hadiji says the situation is only getting worse. “Doctors are starting to let go. Many are retiring and not being replaced,” he said. “We end up with neighborhoods without a doctor.”
When Macron tried to address the desolate state of many of the city’s schools last year, it also drew criticism. In a county where education is highly standardized, he came up with what amounted to a small revolution with an experiment that would allow 50 school principals to choose their own teachers.
His plan, touted as an effort to tackle inequality, was attacked by opponents as something that would make matters worse by creating one group of privileged schools and another group facing decadence. The unions have launched a petition to stop the project.
Critics in Marseille have hinted how deeply entrenched Macron’s perception as a “president for the rich” has become, even as he ponders common solutions in other countries. Le Pen has risen in the polls in recent weeks, which seems largely rooted in reinforcing that sentiment. It presents itself as more moderate than five years ago and as the only alternative to change.
Speaking to his supporters on Saturday, Macron sought to dispel that idea. “I have no interest in doing five more years,” he said. “I want them to be five years of full renewal.”
Scott Clement and Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.