Macron appeals to 'stigmatised' suburbs in election push

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'Determined, focused' Macron prepares for the final election round (AFP/Francois Mori) (Francois Mori)
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French President Emmanuel Macron appealed Thursday to "stigmatised" young people in the country's multi-racial suburbs in the final days of an election campaign he said had been "unbearable" for many because of constant anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Macron faces far-right rival Marine Le Pen in a run-off vote on Sunday. While polls tip him to win, the race is considered tighter than their face off five years ago.

With low-income suburbs, which voted heavily for an eliminated left-wing candidate, in position to play a key role in the outcome of the election, the 44-year-old Macron spent the afternoon greeting people in Seine-Saint-Denis.

Voters in the district northeast of Paris cast ballots for him in droves in the last election but appear less enthusiastic this time round.

"My first message is to say to the residents of all our working-class areas that they are a chance for the republic," Macron told reporters.

"Over the last few months we've stigmatised people from working-class areas, lowering our debate, opposing and sometimes dividing our society," he said.

Early campaigning last year was dominated by the emergence of former TV pundit Eric Zemmour whose anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric was widely seen as more radical than that of Le Pen.

The 63-year-old repeatedly singled out Seine-Saint-Denis, mainland France's poorest and most ethnically diverse region, calling it a "foreign enclave".

The author and newspaper journalist also called Islam "incompatible with the republic" and promised to bring in a law obliging parents to give their children French-sounding first names.

Macron said the election "debate has been unbearable for many people" as they were "designated as the problem by a whole group of candidates".

Zemmour was eliminated in the first round of the election on April 10 after finishing fourth with around seven percent, or 2.5 million votes.

But so was hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who swept the board in low-income suburbs -- including winning 37 out of 40 districts in Seine-Saint-Denis with an average of 49 percent of the vote.

Melenchon's third place finish nationwide means there are many votes up for grabs in Seine-Saint-Denis, while Macron saw his share of the vote in the long-time Communist party bastion fall to around 20 percent from 24 percent in 2017.

- 'On the moon?' -

How left-wing voters cast their ballots is seen as crucial in determining the outcome of Sunday's vote.

Around a third of Melenchon voters are expected to back Macron to keep Le Pen out of power, but up to a third could switch to the far-right while a large chunk will abstain, polls suggest.

The mayor of Saint-Denis, Socialist party figure Mathieu Hanotin, has called on voters to back Macron irrespective of their political differences with the man "dubbed the president of the rich" by his critics.

"If ever Marine Le Pen were to win, the first victims would be here, in these neighbourhoods," he told reporters while standing with Macron.

The far-right candidate has vowed to ban the Muslim headscarf in public, drastically curtail residency rights for foreigners, and introduce a measure to give French people priority in social services such as a public housing.

Other mayors in the area are concerned about the difficulties of persuading young people to switch from Melenchon to Macron in the second round, however.

Dieunor Excellent, mayor of the nearby town of Villetaneuse, where 65 percent of people voted for Melenchon, said the president was associated by many residents with reductions in housing benefits that hit the poor, and tax cuts for the wealthy.

He was sceptical about Macron's bid to woo left-wing voters at the end of his five-year term, which has also seen some Muslims complain about the president's rhetoric about "Islamist separatism" in Muslim areas.

"He's starting now, but he's been away on the moon for five years," Excellent said in an interview last week, recalling Macron's reputation for "condescension and over-confidence" which plays badly in low-income areas.

Asked about the president's debate performance against Le Pen on Wednesday night, local resident Jislaine Prot said it had confirmed her doubts about his character.

"He's still arrogant which he has always been," the 61-year-old local government official told AFP just before Macron bounded out of his car, waving at the crowd.

The former investment banker maintained that Sunday's election remained uncertain and warned against placing too much confidence in polls which suggest he is on course for victory by a margin of around 55-45 percent.

"I'm determined, focused, but nothing can be taken for granted," he said.

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