France’s Le Pen narrows gap in presidential race: poll

Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, speaks during a news conference after meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has gained some ground on her main election rivals, independent Emmanuel Macron and conservative Francois Fillon, but would still lose to either of them in the May 7 runoff for the presidency, a poll showed on Monday.

The Opinionway poll of voting intentions had Le Pen easily beating her four main rivals and winning the April 23 first round with a score of 27 percent to move through to the two-way runoff against either Macron or Fillon.

In a straight fight with Macron she would go down by 42 percent against his 58, while against Fillon she would lose with 44 percent to his 56, the poll showed.

French government bond yields rose sharply on news of the poll, reflecting investors’ apprehension over Le Pen’s proposals to quit the euro zone, hold a referendum on EU membership, and slap taxes on imports and on the job contracts of foreigners.

Her improvement in ratings was most notable against Macron, with whom she was seen a week ago as polling 36-37 percent to his 63-64 percent in the second round.

With nine weeks to go to the first round, it was still not clear whether Macron, a centrist, or Fillon, a former conservative prime minister, would go through to the knockout against Le Pen.

The two men are tied on 20 percent each in the first round, according to Monday’s poll.

Fillon, who preaches radical cost-cutting policies in the public sector to launch a recovery, was the clear frontrunner until a scandal broke over salaries paid to his wife and two children from public funds for questionable amounts of work. He has denied they were paid for ‘fake jobs’.

He has vowed to fight on, despite plunging ratings and the threat of being placed under formal investigation by the financial police, who have launched a probe into the scandal.

Macron, a political novice who has never held elected office, has pulled in huge crowds at rallies, saying he seeks to transcend the classic left-right divide in French politics.

But he sparked an outcry at home last week, which may have dented his support, when he said during a trip to Algeria that France’s colonial past — still a divisive issue 50 years after the war in Algeria — represented “a crime against humanity”.

Le Pen, who wants to take France out of the European Union, was on a trip to Lebanon on Monday where she spoke out against French policy on Syria.

After meeting Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut, she described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the “only viable solution” for preventing Islamic State from taking power in Syria.

“I explained clearly that … Bashar al-Assad was obviously today a much more reassuring solution for France than Islamic State would be if it came to power in Syria, as it has partially taken power in Libya after the disappearance of (Muammar) Gaddafi,” she told journalists.

The election run-up has produced a series of surprises, with several big names falling off the radar.

Polls see little chance of a Socialist revival in time for the election given the poor record of President Francois Hollande’s five years in office and his decision not to run again.

Moves late last week to form an election deal between the Socialists, who have elected left-winger Benoit Hamon as their candidate, and the far-left veteran campaigner Jean-Luc Melenchon, appear to have fizzled.

Melenchon, who is standing as an independent, said: “I have no intention of going and hitching myself to a hearse.” Hamon hit back at the weekend, telling journalists: “I won’t run after Jean-Luc Melenchon. I don’t run after anyone.”

(Additional reporting by Simon Carraud in Beirut and Yann Le Guerigou in Paris; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)


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