Moderate French Voters Angry at Macron Weigh Their Options

(Bloomberg) -- On a rainy morning in Arras, a city that has resisted the Marine Le Pen wave sweeping across Northern France, Quentin Rouget said he can’t decide whether to take a final stand against her.

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A left-leaning economics teacher, Rouget voted for centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron without much thought in 2017. He backed him again reluctantly five years later. But he isn’t sure he can lend his support in Sunday’s legislative election by casting a ballot in this district for the president’s junior agriculture minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher.

His indecision shows why — despite surveys that suggest Le Pen’s National Rally party won’t secure the absolute majority it needs to form the next government — the outcome of the runoff is still highly uncertain.

Voters like Rouget form the bulwark of an electoral maneuver known as the Republican Front that’s been key to keeping the far-right from government since the end of World War II. In France’s two-round system, the practice requires the weakest candidates to withdraw after the first round to clear the way for whomever is best placed to defeat the far-right in the second. Then it’s up to moderates to rally to that person.

Macron called snap elections to deploy the tactic and strengthen his hand after his party was crushed in European elections. But his gamble risks backfiring. Incensed by the president’s stinging attacks on the left in an attempt to shore up his own base, Rouget, and many others, might just stay home instead.

“I’ll make up my mind on Sunday,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing the left being insulted by Macronists, even though we’re the ones blocking the National Rally every time.”

The potential for the Republican Front to crumble has pushed France toward either political paralysis of a fractured hung-parliament, or the empowerment of a once fringe party rooted in xenophobia. Spooked investors have dumped French assets, driving up the country’s borrowing costs and sending shockwaves across financial markets.

Though he’s keeping a low profile now, Macron went on the stump in the days after calling the election and lashed out at Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left France Unbowed — branding it “extreme” and “immigrationist,” a catch word of the far-right that plays on people’s concern about more welcoming migration policies.

It was an attempt to create a broad centrist alliance that didn’t work. Leftist parties came together in an unexpected union of convenience to form The New Popular Front, and polled second behind the National Rally on June 30. Macron’s Ensemble party trailed a distant third, and could even be on the verge of a total wipeout.

At the Élysée Palace a day later, right-leaning members of Macron’s team — including finance minister Bruno Le Maire — argued against asking their candidates to drop out where that would help France Unbowed’s chances, according to a person at the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But others said the Republican Front must hold at all costs, with trade minister Franck Riester quipping that in 1944 France had no problem siding with Stalin to fight the Nazis, the person said.

Macron’s office never issued clear guidelines. They have since pulled a number of candidates from three-way races, but in some places, like the president’s hometown of Amiens, his lawmakers have not bowed out.

The conservative Les Républicains party is facing a similar situation after splintering when some members joined up with Le Pen under the leadership of Eric Ciotti.

In the end, while more than 200 candidates have withdrawn from the run-off, there are still 89 three-way races left.

Back in Arras, candidates were out leafletting on a wet Wednesday.

In an outdoor market, Macron’s minister, Pannier-Runacher, was campaigning meters away from National Rally’s Alban Heusèle, who topped the first round with 37.3% of the vote ahead of her on 21.5%.

Divisions that traditionally defined the contours of the Republican Front have long since “exploded,” Heusèle said, adding that he has already secured the support of leftist voters.

Among them Hugo Garbe, a 21-year-old law student, who joined Macron’s movement in 2022 and now criticizes what he calls the party’s “disdain” for poorer voters and a failure to adequately address concerns over income, healthcare, security and immigration.

“As a Macron minister, Pannier-Runacher bears some responsibility for this chaos,” Garbe said.

Sheltering in a cafe, Pannier-Runacher acknowledged that some voters hesitate between her and the National Rally despite stark differences. She added, “Some people say ‘We’ve tried everything, but we haven’t tried the RN’ — but we have tried, it was in 1940.”

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--With assistance from James Regan.

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