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Macron, barely campaigning, leads French presidential race

PARIS (AP) — Tired-looking. Unshaven. Wearing jeans and a hoodie. As he runs for re-election next month, French President Emmanuel Macron released unusual pictures of himself working nights and weekends at the Elysee palace, where he is spending most of his time focusing on the war in Ukraine — while avoiding traditional campaign activities.

If it’s a campaign strategy it seems to be paying off, reinforcing his position of frontrunner in the presidential race while making it difficult for other contenders to challenge him.

Macron was criticized by other candidates for refusing to take part in any televised debate before the first round, scheduled on April 10.

He promised to answer at length journalists’ questions in a news conference on Thursday afternoon — an effort to show he’s not avoiding difficult issues, his entourage said.

The centrist is expected to unveil his proposals for the next five years, including a controversial pension reform to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65.

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A government official involved in Macron’s campaign said the president wants to “respond to criticism. He will fully be campaigning” in the coming days.

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Even though he formally announced he is running for a second term at the beginning of the month, Macron has not held any rallies yet.

In recent days, he pushed for a cease-fire in phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and spoke on an almost daily basis with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Last week, he gathered EU leaders at the Versailles palace, west of Paris, to discuss sanctions against Russia. France holds the rotating presidency of the European Union Council, which gives Macron a key role in coordinating the bloc of 27’s response.

Next week, he is expected to be seen alongside U.S. President Joe Biden, who is to come to Brussels for a NATO summit.

Pollster Bernard Sananes, president of poll institute Elabe, said that “obviously the international situation is reinforcing his stature.”

“It gives the impression that Macron in 2017 has been elected on a promise to renew (politics) and that Macron in 2022 wants to be elected on the promise of (having) experience,” he said in an interview with French newspaper L’Opinion. Polls show a majority of French people, whether they intend to vote for him or not, consider he is up to the job, he stressed.

Polls see Macron about 10 percentage points ahead of far-right contender Marine Le Pen, placing them both in a position to reach the runoff and replay the 2017 election. They show that in that case the French president is widely expected to win.

Another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, far-left figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and conservative contender Valérie Pécresse are amid other key challengers.

Rivals have accused Macron of focusing on the situation in Ukraine to avoid speaking about domestic issues which may prove more tricky for him.

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Le Pen said Macron is “using the war in Ukraine to scare French people, because he thinks scaring can benefit him.”

“When there’s a war, there’s a reflex to be legitimist,” Pécresse said. “People think: there’s a captain leading the operation … We must not be afraid to change the captain on April 11,” she added.

Advocates for Macron argue that the situation in Ukraine involves key domestic issues that are being fully debated in the campaign, like energy and defense policies.

Political history expert Jean Garrigues stressed the “unifying” impact around the head of state in a war-related situation. He recalled that the same effect was noticeable when Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, launched a military operation in Mali to drive Islamic extremists from power.

Before him, France’s greatest figures have proven their leadership in situations of war — from Napoleon to Charles de Gaulle. “French public opinion is very much rooted in that history,” Garrigues told the AP.

Therefore, “we can see that Macron’s adversaries have no experience equivalent to the presidential function, or even as key ministers, and are de facto in a situation of inferiority,” he noted.

Pollsters said Macron’s greatest challenge as the frontrunner may be a low turnout, with sympathizers not going to polling stations because they think he will win, while those angry at his policies would further mobilize.

Macron himself acknowledged the risk in a behind-the-scenes video posted on his campaign’s Youtube channel. “That’s what I’m going to tell the French, and also my supporters: If they think it’s done, it means we have lost,” he said.

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