Macron hunts for French rural votes, Le Pen cheers new ally

By Angela Charlton, AP

USSEAU, France — French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron hunted Saturday for votes in rural France where his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, is making inroads among country folk who feel left behind.

Back in Paris, Le Pen announced that if she wins the presidency in the May 7 runoff she would name former rival Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, her new campaign ally, as her prime minister. The move aims to secure the nearly 1.7 million votes that the anti-European Union conservative got when he was eliminated from the presidential race in the first round of balloting.

Since many Dupont-Aignan voters had already been expected to switch to Le Pen for her runoff against the centrist Macron, the alliance is unlikely to prove a massive electoral boost for her.

Symbolically, however, it punctured a hole in hopes — expressed by mainstream politicians on both the left and the right — that French voters would unite against Le Pen’s extremism in the runoff. That did happen in 2002, when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the presidential runoff but lost overwhelmingly to Jacques Chirac.

At a news conference with Dupont-Aignan, Marine Le Pen celebrated his backing as the creation of “a great patriotic and republican alliance” and said they will campaign “hand-in-hand.”

“It’s a historic day, because we are putting France’s interests before personal or partisan ones,” Dupont-Aignan said.

Macron said their far-right and right-wing alliance made the campaign battle lines even clearer.

“There is a reactionary, nationalist, anti-European right-wing that has structured itself and which, today, is an important political force,” he said. “Facing it is a progressive bloc that I represent, and which defends France.”

Macron is not saying yet who he would name to lead his government if he is elected. In a radio interview Saturday, he merely said he has “people in mind.”

Venturing into rural France to combat Le Pen’s arguments that he represents just the big-city elite, the former economy minister plugged his proposals to reverse the economic and social decline in farming areas. Macron promised to modernize phone and internet connections in rural areas and vigorously defended the EU as an essential market for French farmers.

On an impromptu tour of the farmers’ market in the central town of Poitiers, Macron listened to a grain farmer complain about low-price competition from other EU countries and a vegetable farmer lament about the difficulty of getting loans to upgrade farm equipment.

As the smell of goat cheeses wafted across the stalls, Macron rebuffed Le Pen’s criticisms of the EU with a vigorous defense of European free trade, saying her plans to leave the bloc and its agricultural aid program would spell the end of French farming.

“Rural areas need an open, conquering France,” Macron said. “Our agriculture needs Europe and openness.”

Macron promised that no more schools would close in rural areas if he is elected and said his government would intervene directly if mobile operators fail within 18 months to install high-speed fiber optic and phone networks “everywhere.”

Le Pen has made the plight of French farmers a theme of her campaign, citing farm closures, rural poverty and farmers’ suicides.