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French presidential candidates diverge on election rallies as Covid surges

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As France gears up for this year’s presidential election amid an upsurge in Covid-19 infections, candidates’ differing approach to health measures at their political rallies has led to the emergence of a two-speed campaign.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party said on Monday it would not apply a 2,000 person limit on indoor events, nor ask for proof of vaccination, measures required by President Emmanuel Macron’s government for many types of events.

Political parties can choose which Covid health protocols to apply after the country’s constitutional court ruled in May that the government could not unduly limit religious, political or union activities by requiring people to show health passports.

Mainstream parties such as Macron’s La République en Marche and Valérie Pécresse’s Les Republicains have pledged to put a limit on crowd numbers and apply other measures because they say it is a responsible approach to campaigning during a pandemic. In contrast, far-right and far-left candidates from Eric Zemmour to Jean-Luc Mélenchon eschew them in the name of liberty.

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“We won’t have the presidential election stolen from us, or the French people,” Sébastien Chenu, a member of parliament and spokesman for Rassemblement National, said on France Inter radio. “There are lots of problems in this country . . . during an election, we must be able to debate and inform the public.”

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But Le Pen’s campaign said it would delay its first big rally, originally scheduled for January 15-16 in Reims, because of the “health situation and epidemic peak predicted” around that time, and would hold it on February 5 instead.

Mélenchon said he would hand out high-filtration N95 masks to people at a January 16 rally in Nantes. “We will take steps for people to be protected, but you cannot have a campaign without rallies,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pécresse has said she would cap crowd sizes in a bid to be “exemplary”. 

As it has in other elections globally, the pandemic is expected to play a part in the dynamics of France’s election and voters’ perceptions of the candidates.

France’s surge in Covid infections is widely expected to make it more difficult for candidates to conduct their campaigns © Ian Langsdon/EPA/Shutterstock

Infections have been at record highs in the past week driven largely by the more transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant, which health officials estimate now accounts for about 60 per cent of new cases. About 160,000 new infections are detected daily based on a seven-day moving average, putting France at 234 cases per 100,000 people, similar to the UK and far higher than the US or EU, according to the Financial Times Covid tracker.

Covid hospitalisations in France have risen 20 per cent in the past week. Last week, the government required people to work from home at least three days a week, limited crowd sizes at events and tightened mask wearing, but stopped short of closing businesses or imposing curfews like last year.

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French health minister Olivier Véran criticised some candidates for their decisions on rallies. “I wonder how they can claim that they will be responsible once in power if they are incapable of being responsible while they are seeking power,” he said.

Macron is leading opinion polls, with about 24 per cent of voters saying they plan to choose him in the first round of France’s two-round election, according to Harris Interactive. Pécresse is polling around 17 per cent, followed by Le Pen with 16 per cent and Zemmour with 15 per cent.

Dominique Reynié, an analyst at Fondapol think-tank, said the Covid surge made it harder for candidates to launch their campaigns and would create “volatility” in public opinion.

“This will significantly delay voters in deciding their intentions. For the first time, none of the candidates, not even the president, can really control the agenda so it creates the conditions for surprises.”

Additional reporting by Sarah White

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