PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron declared Monday that he wants to “convince" a broad range of French voters to back his centrist vision, kicking off a two-week battle against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen ahead of the country's presidential runoff vote.
Le Pen, meanwhile, is ready for the fight, eager to highlight rising prices for energy and food that have hit poorer households especially hard recently as Macron has focused his efforts on seeking a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.
The two candidates came out on top in Sunday's first-round presidential vote, setting up an April 24 replay of their duel in 2017. Macron trounced Le Pen five years ago in the presidential runoff but all opinion polls show the leader of the National Rally is much closer this time to a potential win.
The outcome of the French presidential election will have wide international influence as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wreaked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia while Le Pen has worried about their impact on French living standards. Macron also is a firm supporter of NATO and of close collaboration among the EU's 27 members.
Macron headed Monday to an economically depressed area of northern France where a majority of voters had chosen Le Pen, close to her electoral stronghold of Henin-Beaumont.
“I'm here, and I'm determined to fight," the 44-year-old president said during his visit to the town of Denain, adding that he has heard the concerns of people who struggle to find a job and earn more money.
“They need to be reassured,” he said.
For her part, Le Pen met with National Rally officials to plan her strategy for the runoff and visited a cereal producer in the Burgundy region to speak about rising prices and making “strong, urgent decisions to protect the purchasing power of the French." The topic has been at the core of her campaign this year, but Macron’s team argues that, due to the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, France does not have the financial means to meet Le Pen's campaign promises.
Macron said he wants to court those who voted for the "extremes" or opted to stay at home. He met with residents in Denain, many of whom criticized his proposed pension changes, which include raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 65.
Denain Mayor Anne-Lise Dufour-Tonini told reporters she will vote for Macron 'with no hesitation" in the second round, but intends to push for him to adopt more “leftist proposals."
Many of the 10 presidential candidates who were defeated in the first round Sunday encouraged voters to choose Macron in the second round, including conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse and the Green and Socialist candidates. Pécresse warned of “the chaos that would ensue” if Le Pen was elected.
Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in third in Sunday's vote, urged voters not to choose Le Pen, implicitly suggesting that just staying at home could be an option too.
Le Pen was backed by the other far-right candidate who was defeated, former TV pundit Eric Zemmour.
On her third attempt to become France’s first woman president, Le Pen was rewarded Sunday for her years-long effort to rebrand herself as less extreme. Macron is not buying it, however, accusing Le Pen of pushing a dangerous manifesto of racist, ruinous policies. Le Pen wants to roll back some rights for Muslims, banning them from wearing headscarves in public, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.
Macron and Le Pen are to debate on national television next week.
“Our focus is now on the project and the values,” said Sen. Francois Patriat, a member of Macron’s party.
Le Pen's camp, meanwhile, is hoping to capitalize on anger at Macron over policies seen as favoring the rich.
“Now everything is possible,” said Aurélien Lopez Liguori, a councilor with Le Pen's party in the southern city of Sete, adding that, compared with 2017, “now Macron has a record, a bad record.”
French Minister for European Affairs Clément Beaune told the AP that only five years ago “Le Pen was proposing — must not forget it — to leave the euro, to break Europe when Brexit and Frexit were trendy.”
Le Pen has dropped earlier threats to pull France out of the EU and abandon the shared euro currency if elected, but some of her proposals, including setting up a national border control, are contrary to EU rules.
With all first-round votes counted Monday, Macron had 27.8% support, Le Pen captured 23.1% and Melenchon was third with close to 22%.
John Leicester and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.
Follow all AP stories on France’s presidential election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022