LE HAVRE, France — A staunch supporter of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Nicole Liot smiled when she saw him during a campaign break recently. But she was also concerned about the final round of this Sunday’s French elections. In her life she had never seen such intense distaste for a president among some French people.
“There are presidents who were not hated in this way, even if they were not saints,” said Ms Liot, 80, arguing that what has come to be known as Mr Macron’s “little sentences” fueled the disgust. “Like when he said to someone, ‘You’re looking for a job? Just cross the street and you will find one.’”
As anti-Macron protesters burned tires and smoked the skies over the northwestern city of Le Havre, Ms Liot added: “Maybe people won’t forgive him for these language and attitude mistakes.”
No French president has been the object of such intense distaste from key segments of the population as Mr Macron – the result, experts say, of his image as an elitist out of touch with the ordinary French whose pensions and job protection he in its efforts to make the economy more investor-friendly.
Exactly how deep that disgust is will be a crucial factor – perhaps even the decisive one – in the election against his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen. Recent polls give Mr Macron a lead of about 10 percentage points – greater than at some points in the campaign, but only a third of his profit margin five years ago.
“Macron and the hatred he generates is unprecedented,” said Nicolas Domenach, an accomplished political journalist who has covered the past five French presidents and co-authored “Macron: Why So Much Hatred?”, a recently published book. . “It comes from a certain attunement. He is the president of the rich and the president of contempt.”
No doubt Mr Macron could win re-election despite his unpopularity. Even if a tidal wave of voters turns out not to vote for him, what is important to him is that there are enough voters to vote against her – to build a ‘dam’ against the far right.
It is an established strategy to create a so-called “Republican Front” against a political force – its 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 despise and a far-right candidate they despise, many French voters may just stay at home, or even vote for Ms. Le Pen, tipping the scales in a close election.
At every chance she gets, Ms Le Pen has done her best to remind voters of “these terrible words” – “these words of contempt” – which now remain with Mr Macron, as she did at a major campaign rally in the United States. southern city of Avignon last week.
“These are the words of a power without empathy,” she said as the crowd cheered.
Both she and Mr Macron are now competing in the final days of the campaign for voters to vote for other candidates in the first round of the April 10 presidential election, on whom the elections now depend.
Roland Lescure, a lawmaker and spokesman for Macron’s party, La République en Marche, said he was convinced that “rejection for Marine Le Pen” would prove more powerful than the president’s distaste, which he acknowledged.
The rejection was not only of the person of Ms Le Pen, he said, “but above all of an ideology, of a political history and of a platform which, if one reads it, is extremely harmful.”
But Ms Le Pen has become so confident in her ever-expanding appeal after taking calculated steps to soften her image that she’s even dared to use the term “dam” for herself — she begged voters six times in her rally for a to build a dam against Macron. †
The calls for drafts on both sides underlined how the final vote amounts to an unpopularity contest: the less hated candidate wins.
That’s especially true in this race, with the same finalists as in 2017. But if Ms Le Pen was seen at the time as a bulldozer of far-right ideology, she’s tried a softer, more personal side in the current campaign.
And if mr. Macron was once seen as a fresh face who inspired many with his promises to change a bony France, this time he has been cast by his haters as some sort of evil king.
With Mr Macron finally entering the race, he is faced with the raw emotions that have shaped much of his presidency.
What you need to know about the French presidential election
“I’ve never seen a Fifth Republic president as bad as you,” a man told him during a campaign stoppage last week, accusing him of being “arrogant” and “contemptuous”. A visibly irritated Mr. Macron made a circular motion with his index finger around his right temple.
In the deindustrialised, impoverished north – a stronghold of Le Pen – Mr Macron is so unpopular that he even lost in the first round in his hometown of Amiens. In one town in the region, Denain, a woman tied the knot during a campaign shutdown, fiercely criticizing his presidency, his handling of the pandemic and schools.
“You don’t live in the real world,” Mr Macron told the woman, who replied in amazement, “We don’t live in the real world? Are you telling us that, Mr Macron?”
In Argenteuil, an impoverished suburb of Paris, Claudine Pasquier, a retired school secretary with two shopping bags, rattled Mr Macron’s “little sentences” — such as when he called station places “where one meets people who are successful and people who are nothing” or reference to the “crazy amounts of dough” spent on benefits for the poor.
“We remember all these little phrases because they humiliated people,” said Ms. Pasquier. 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 had been “catastrophic” in forging Macron’s image and fueling the widespread sense of contempt that he said was a central factor in French culture. politics and society today.
“It’s about the relationship between a disdainful elite and a society that is despised,” he said.
Mr Rosanvallon noted that “contempt” was also deeply ingrained among Ms Le Pen’s main supporters, although it targets migrants, foreigners and others perceived as socially inferior. Ms Le Pen has said she will increase benefits for people like those who vote for her by taking them from immigrants.
Ms. Le Pen had understood the power of this dynamic, said Mr. Rosanvallon, and understood that economic hardship is not just about money, but that it must be dealt with “in terms of dignity, in terms of respect, in terms of feeling abandoned. †
Mr Lescure, Mr Macron’s party spokesman, said much of the anger against the president stemmed from a misunderstanding of his government style, which he compared to that of former presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand – also two so-called Republican monarchs. . considered distant.
“If he is described as haughty, aloof and even arrogant, I think it’s also because his exercise of power is much less popular, in the sense of people-centeredness, than others,” he said.
In fact, it has deterred many previous supporters of the president.
At Ms Le Pen’s meeting in Avignon, Rachida Saidj, 53, said she had voted for Macron in 2017 as part of the barrier against the far right. This time she had voted for the Greens in the first round and planned to vote for Ms Le Pen as part of the anti-Macron front.
“He has said everything and the opposite, he has despised many people,” Ms Saidj said, adding that Mr Macron had behaved like “a king”.
In Le Havre, another ardent Macron supporter, Bilel Benaouda, a 22-year-old student and aspiring entrepreneur, was also concerned. He had voted for Macron in the first round. But his brother and most of those around him had supported Mr Mélenchon and now planned to stay home for the second round.
“Last time the election was more about anti-Le Pen,” Benaouda said. “But this time it’s about anti-Le Pen as well as anti-Macron.”
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Le Havre, and Constant Méheut from Argenteuil and Avignon.