By Lucy Williamson-BBC Paris correspondent
https://www.bbc.com-Image source, Getty Images
At a rally on Thursday night in Perpignan, Marine Le Pen told voters to “take back control”
The least a president might expect, when juggling a war in Europe with an election at home, is a bounce in the polls.
But Emmanuel Macron has discovered that all the energy he spent dealing with Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has been of little help in France’s unpredictable vote.
“Nothing is impossible,” President Macron has warned, as polls suggest his far-right rival is closer than ever before to winning the presidency.
A month ago, Marine Le Pen was trailing President Macron by 10 points and fighting for a place in the second round against him.
Now she’s seen as the clear favourite to challenge him for the presidency after Sunday’s first round. If she does make it through to the 24 April run-off, opinion polls suggest for the first time that a Le Pen victory is within the margin of error.
For this, the National Rally leader can thank two men once seen as dangerous for her campaign: her far-right rival, Eric Zemmour, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, now an international pariah.
“I would say that [Zemmour’s] campaign was destroyed by Ukraine,” said Gilles Paris, an election specialist for French daily Le Monde.
“His pro-Russian attitude was a burden, while Marine Le Pen was smart enough to pivot to a more moderate point of view. She was ready to accept refugees [immediately], while it took two days for Zemmour to understand that these refugees were well accepted in France.”
Mrs Le Pen has since picked up a good part of Eric Zemmour’s votes.
President Macron lost most of his “war bounce” two weeks ago, and has also faced criticism from EU partner, Poland, for talking so regularly to Russia’s president.
His frustration burst through when he was asked about it on the campaign trail this week, surrounded by crowds in the Brittany village of Spézet.
“I’m not the one who is sympathetic to Putin,” he snapped. “I’m not the one who looks for funding from Russia. That’s other candidates.”
Vladimir Putin publicly backed Marine Le Pen during the last presidential race here, and her National Rally party is currently repaying a loan from a Russian bank. But she has deflected discussion of the war in Ukraine by focusing on her core campaign topic: rising prices at home.
And as the war has added to price pressures on petrol and basic goods, the Le Pen electoral strategy is continuing to pay off.
Melina, a care assistant who came to watch President Macron’s rally in Spézet this week, said the economic situation had changed her politics.
“There are a lot of French people here who work but are forced to sleep in their cars because they cannot afford an apartment and nobody helps them,” she said. “It’s a disgrace. I used to vote for the left but I could very well vote on the right this time.”