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Macron is beating Le Pen in France's polls — but not by as much as 5 years ago

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

French voters will cast their ballots Sunday for president. Polls show the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, beating his rival, populist candidate Marine Le Pen, but with a slimmer margin than five years ago. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a town in a working-class region of France to look at why.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The northern French town of Arras was on the western front during World War I. It was also once part of the region's booming coal mining industry. That, too, is in the past.

Last night, hundreds of people lined up to get into Marine Le Pen's final campaign rally before Sunday's vote. Nathalie and Frank Herblin both work in a factory nearby. They say Le Pen has the workers' best interests at heart.

NATHALIE HERBLIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We are sick of Macron and his globalization," they say. "The rich are getting richer, but the working class is struggling. Marine will do everything to help the working class."

Le Pen has moderated her party's image, drawing thousands of new supporters. Her mainstream makeover was enhanced by the presence of a candidate even further to the right. Eric Zemmour talked anti-immigration while Le Pen stuck to bread-and-butter economic issues.

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BEARDSLEY: In front of Arras' ornate town hall, I meet 67-year-old Evelyn. She says Le Pen may have changed, but she's still divisive.

EVELYN: (Through interpreter) With everything that we've been through these last five years, the pandemic and this nightmare war between Russia and Ukraine, it's Macron who's calmly guided us through, listening to scientists and economists. He's young and didn't have much experience, but he's been amazing. I didn't vote for him last time, but I'm so proud to have such a president.

BEARDSLEY: In Arras' cobbled medieval square, 24-year-old Marie Belmont is having a drink with her sister. She voted for far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round. She says she'll hold her nose and vote for Macron in the second.

MARIE BELMONT: (Through interpreter) We're not voting for a president so much as voting against Marine Le Pen, to block her.

BEARDSLEY: Belmont is continuing the French tradition known as Fair Barrage, or build a dam, against the far right. The dam was most notably erected in 2002, when millions of left-wing voters crossed over to support conservative Jacques Chirac to block Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's father. But analysts say the daughter today is nothing like her father, and the stigma of voting for Le Pen's party has diminished.

ADRIEN D’ANGLETERRE: The beginning of the battle was the 9 of April, 1917.

BEARDSLEY: Adrien d’Angleterre works in the tourist office, where he tells visitors about the World War I Battle of Arras. D’Angleterre is into history, but says he's not very political.

D’ANGLETERRE: Yeah, obviously I'm going to vote, but I still don't know who I'm going to vote for.

BEARDSLEY: Analysts say abstention could be high among young voters, which could help Le Pen, as could Macron's perceived arrogance that has created a deep well of resentment, especially among working class voters.

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MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: At her rally, Le Pen called on the French to vote for her, reject Macron's vision of a globalized France, and preserve the soul of the country.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Arras, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.