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How French voters see their presidential choices

May 5, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
French voters head to the polls Sunday in the second-round runoff between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Macron has been buoyed this week by an endorsement by former President Obama and a solid debate performance. But Le Pen's anti-immigrant party continues to press its case. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: In the most closely watched presidential election in France in decades, voters head to the polls this Sunday. It’s the second round run-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant is there.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The candidates spent their final day of campaigning in vastly different places. Centrist and heavy favorite Emmanuel Macron strolled around the small town of Rodez in the southwest of France. But he told a local radio station he’s not relaxing.

EMMANUEL MACRON, Centrist Presidential Candidate, France (through interpreter): I know the French men and women, and you don’t dictate their choices. So until the last minute, they can decide, react, change. So one must remain concentrated.

MALCOLM BRABANT: To the north, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen got a hostile reception outside the famed Reims Cathedral.

Later, she tweeted: “Monsieur Macron’s supporters act with violence everywhere, even in a symbolic and sacred place. No dignity.”

And in an interview in Paris, she took aim at her rival.

MARINE LE PEN, Far-Right Presidential Candidate, France (through interpreter): Mr. Macron is the candidate of the elites, he is the candidate of the oligarchy, he is the candidate of the big private interests.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Macron has been buoyed this week by an endorsement from former President Obama and a solid performance in Wednesday’s bruising debate. But Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front has kept pressing its case in places like the Yonne Valley. Here, the Front is preaching to the converted.

Former soldier Pascal Roi supports Le Pen’s pledge to crack down on Islamist militants.

PASCAL ROI, Former Soldier (through interpreter): Regarding terrorism, she’s promised to expel people flagged as threats to national security and dual nationals as well. This is going to remove a burden so we can keep a better eye on the rest of the population.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Most of those attending this final campaign gathering were either seniors or middle-aged. There were no people of color. The youngest voter was student nurse Marie Buzetti, who favors Le Pen’s plan to follow Britain out of the European Union.

MARIE BUZETTI, Student Nurse (through interpreter): Today, we need to regain our independence. Today, we are the puppets of the European Union and it needs to change.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The National Front has been accused of preying on fears and whipping up hatred. Parliamentary candidate Ludovic Vigreux didn’t hold back, warning that Sharia law might one day rule France forcing his daughters to buy burkas. “We need Marine,” he said. France needs Marine. And Marine needs you.”

As you can hear, they’re chanting “Marine for president.” And here in the countryside, she may do very well. But nationally it’s not looking good for her at all. All the opinion polls suggest that Emmanuel Macron is going to win by a majority of 60 percent to 40 percent.

The Yonne Valley is one of the poorest districts of rural France. The lack of job prospects have forced many residents to move away. Le Pen’s Frexit plans worry marketing executive David De Silva, and so he will vote for the pro-European candidate Emmanuel Macron.

DAVID DE SILVA, Macron Supporter (through interpreter): We have access to everything, a great marketplace, and it would be a shame to lose that. Today, we obviously can’t live without Europe.

MALCOLM BRABANT: One of the most important factors in this election is the large number of undecided voters. If millions abstain, it could benefit Marine Le Pen. Restaurant worker Joanna Thurloy voted for left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round and now faces a major dilemma.

JOANNA THURLOY, Undecided Voter (through interpreter): I don’t feel understood by either side, because, with Emmanuel Macron, it’s all about capitalism and speculation. And Marine Le Pen, it’s her family history of being on the extreme right. We have already been through this.

MALCOLM BRABANT: There’s an undertone of defiance and maybe even desperation amongst the Front supporters as they chant, “We will win.”

In order for Le Pen to enter the presidential palace, there will have to be a political surprise of Brexit or Donald Trump proportions. And that’s the mantra to which parliamentary candidate Julien Odoul is clinging.

JULIEN ODOUL, National Front Parliamentary Candidate (through interpreter): Because she’s the only one who speaks to the French, the only one who speaks to the forgotten ones, all those French who’ve been abandoned for decades.

MALCOLM BRABANT: France’s national anthem, written in the 18th century, is all about conflict. If Marine Le Pen upsets the odds and wins on Sunday, France and the European Union will face a major upheaval.

But the pollsters believe French voters want stability and will follow the Dutch in rejecting right-wing nationalism.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in the Yonne Valley.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Late today, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign said they have been hacked and the internal documents have been posted online just hours before voters head to the polls. It issued a statement saying it won’t tolerate the undermining of democracy’s vital interests.

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