DIJON, France: French President Emmanuel Macron hit the campaign trail on Monday and immediately took aim at his far-right rival Eric Zemmour as the clock ticks down on elections less than two weeks away.
Switching from his lofty perch as head of state to the rough and tumble of domestic politics, Macron traveled to the eastern town of Dijon for a classic pre-election walkabout and visit to a high school.
He was asked about weekend images from a Zemmour rally in Paris at which the crowd chanted “Killer Macron” as the anti-immigration former TV pundit criticized the government for letting foreign criminals into the country.
Macron allies have criticized Zemmour for failing to condemn the chants, while Zemmour’s team has said he did not hear them.
“There are two theories: The first is that it is shameful act, which seems to be the most credible, but is not a surprise,” Macron told reporters in bright spring sunshine.
“The second one is that there’s a lack of knowledge about a very important reform during my term in office,” he added, before explaining how the cost of hearing aids was now fully covered by the social security system.
“I invite the hard-of-hearing candidate to get himself sorted out at lower cost,” he added.
Macron has so far deliberately stayed out of the campaign and declined to engage directly with his opponents, insisting that he has had to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic and latterly war in Ukraine.
Monday marked the start of the official campaign period running up to the first round of voting on April, with all 12 candidates now entitled to equal time and space in the media.
The top two candidates in the first round will go through to a second-round run-off on April 24.
Macron is the current favorite to win, with the war in Ukraine seen as helping raise his profile. Veteran far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is running in second place, polls suggest.
A new poll by the Ipsos/Sopra Steria group published in Le Monde newspaper on Monday showed Macron on 28 percent ahead of the first round, down a point, while Le Pen had gained 1.5 points to 17.5 percent.
Le Pen continues to run a low-key campaign that has seen her tone down her usual hardline rhetoric on immigration in favour of focusing on household income, voters’ biggest priority.
Zemmour, who soared in opinion polls in September and October last year while teasing his presidential ambitions, has since slipped to fourth or fifth.
Frederic Dabi, a leading polling expert at the Ifop group, stressed that the race remained unpredictable despite Macron’s apparent strength in voter surveys.
“When I see such a low level of interest in the campaign, when I see that a quarter of French people have not made up the mind... things can still change,” he told the Public Senat channel.