Thursday, May 4, 2017

PARIS — While the last two candidates standing struggle to secure a majority, France’s minority communities are holding their breath ahead of their country’s momentous presidential election.

French Muslims, French Jews and other minorities and religious groups have stepped up their rallying behind independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron ahead of this country’s closely watched runoff election on Sunday.

That’s because, for them, the alternative, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, is unthinkable.

“All French people must remain united against the threat embodied by xenophobic ideas, which are dangerous for our national unity,” said Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris. “The two candidates have very different visions for the future of our country.”

After a bitter final debate and a surprise endorsement from former President Barack Obama on Thursday, Mr. Macron, a onetime banker and a political neophyte, is trying to protect his polling lead and fend off a strong challenge from Ms. Le Pen. The final vote total could provide a major signal for the strength of the anti-globalist aftershocks from the political earthquake started by last year’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.

Even if she falls short, Ms. Le Pen is likely to rack up a record level of support for her once-fringe party, a sign of the chord she has struck with many who distrust the European Union, fear more radical Islamist terrorist attacks and feel the essence of what it once meant to be French is under siege.

After an April 23 vote that knocked out nine other candidates for president — unpopular incumbent President Francois Hollande declined to run for a second term — French voters face a stark choice between Mr. Macron, an unapologetic defender of the globalist mainstream, and Ms. Le Pen, who has promised to pull France out of the European Union, erect trade barriers to support domestic industry and sharply curb immigration.

Mr. Macron, a youthful-looking 39-year-old former economy minister who formed a political party, En Marche (Forward), to appeal to French voters disillusioned by the mainstream socialists and conservatives, is drawing support from big cities such as Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon. Conversely, Ms. Le Pen is polling strongly in rural areas and the northeast, where deindustrialization resulting from globalization and automation have cut blue-collar jobs.

Many voters aren’t happy with the choice. In the aftermath of the first round two weeks ago, graffiti began to appear on walls and in the subway in Paris proclaiming “Neither Le Pen nor Macron.”

Mr. Macron has consistently led in the polls, with support of around 60 percent to Ms. Le Pen’s 40 percent, but National Front officials say those numbers underestimate both the size and the enthusiasm of Ms. Le Pen’s energized political base.

Pollster Elabe reported that Mr. Macron has lost 5 percentage points since last week. Macron supporters are also afraid that a large number of disenchanted voters will either not vote or go to the polls but cast blank ballots. About 22 percent abstained in the first round of voting, the largest share since the 2002 presidential elections, when conservative Jacques Chirac won in a landslide over Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s now-estranged father.

Energized for Le Pen

Ms. Le Pen’s supporters, meanwhile, are expected to turn out in droves.

“Marine Le Pen’s voters are convinced of their choice,” said Jean Chiche, an analyst at the political research center Cevipof. “Their numbers will not change.”

Ms. Le Pen, 48, has broadened the appeal of the National Front since she took over from her father six years ago. He garnered intense criticism over the years for his anti-Semitic comments and denial of the Holocaust. That legacy is now a distant memory, even for some in France’s minority communities.

“Around 14 percent of the Jewish community in France is getting ready to vote for Le Pen. This shows that the ‘detoxification’ effort has achieved its results,” said Danielle Cohen, president of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France, which has endorsed Mr. Macron. “We are shocked that they are voting for a dictatorship, and we have been actively campaigning on social media to make our views known.”

The Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France, an umbrella group of organizations, has also rallied behind Mr. Macron, calling Ms. Le Pen the “hatred” candidate. “Her program is unacceptable in terms of fundamental liberties,” said council Vice President Yonathan Arfi.

French Muslim leaders such as Mr. Boubakeur have similarly been urging members of their community to vote for Mr. Macron.

“[We] reiterate our call that Muslim citizens of France vote without reserve for Mr. Emmanuel Macron on Sunday,” he said. “His republican and humanist message, calling for national unity in the face of the numerous challenges to be met, are the guarantors of a brotherhood of citizens that promises a real hope of living together peacefully.”

The French Protestant Federation hasn’t explicitly backed Mr. Macron, but has warned about the dangers of abstaining and the possible curbs on religious freedom that could follow a National Front victory.

Mr. Macron got an unexpected endorsement from Mr. Obama, who is a superstar in France.

“I admire the campaign that Emmanuel Macron has run,” Mr. Obama said in a video that Mr. Macron tweeted on Thursday afternoon. “He has stood up for liberal values. He put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world.”

But Mr. Obama’s open campaigning for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union fell short last summer, when a majority voted to exit the bloc.

Several candidates eliminated in the first round have called their voters to support Mr. Macron against Ms. Le Pen in the second round.

Socialist Benoit Hamon, who suffered a crushing defeat with just 6 percent of votes, and former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose center-right party Republicans came third, immediately threw their support behind Mr. Macron once results of the first round were released.

However, far-left populist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came fourth, has stopped short of endorsing Mr. Macron in the final round, saying, “We can’t really call this a choice.”

Some of his supporters have refused to switch their support to Mr. Macron despite the rush by mainstream political parties. Mr. Melenchon’s party released the results of an internal survey this week that found two-thirds of party supporters plan either to abstain or cast blank ballots in protest of their options.

Pauline Godard, 45, who lives in Paris’ 18th Arrondissement, home to a large immigrant population, voted for Mr. Melenchon in the first round because of his strong focus on welfare, social and environmental policies, as well as his criticism of the European Union as a club for financiers and corporate interests.

Although she doesn’t approve of Mr. Macron and his policies, she said she cannot stomach the thought of Ms. Le Pen becoming president.

“I am going to wear gloves and vote Macron,” she said.

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