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Poverty, education levels draw battle lines in French election

By Leigh Thomas

PARIS (Reuters) – As French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen head into a presidential run-off on April 24 promising to tackle high inflation, an analysis of first-round voting data shows the far-right challenger with an edge in low-income areas hardest hit by soaring costs.

Sensing people’s frustration in the face of rocketing inflation, Le Pen pivoted her campaign from her usual anti-immigration, eurosceptic message to how she would help restore families’ budgets.

Macron won 27.8% of votes ahead of Le Pen’s 23.2% in the first round of voting on Sunday, but there were big regional divergences with election battle lines drawn along local economic, social and demographic contours.

The demographic analysis of the results showed Le Pen’s promise best resonated where it matters the most – in areas with lower living standards, where more people drop out of high school, have lower life expectancy, and suffer from more crime.

The analysis also suggests Macron will have a tough time reaching voters outside his base of educated, middle-class city dwellers.

Graphic: Results from first round of France’s presidential election –

In its analysis, Reuters used a machine learning algorithm to rank 45 demographic and economic variables according to how well they correlate with candidates’ scores in regional administrative districts, known in France as departments.

As in 2017, economic wealth and education levels were key determinants on Sunday whether departments leaned towards Macron or Le Pen, although the correlation with higher standards of living was stronger this time for Macron.

Conversely, Macron did worse and Le Pen significantly better in areas with more poverty. On average, 12.7% of the population lives in poverty in departments where Macron came in first, and 16% where Le Pen got the most votes.

With record high inflation, polls have repeatedly shown dwindling purchasing power as voters’ top concern heading into the election.

Graphic: Macron scored lowest in high poverty areas –

Official government data indicate that France saw broad gains in gross disposable income during Macron’s presidency although the spike in inflation over the last six months is quickly eating that away.

But his weak results in high unemployment and low income areas suggest his message that he is best placed to reverse the trend is falling on deaf ears in areas that need help the most.

A 25-billion-euro ($27 billion) government package, worth 1% of France’s economic output, to help people cope with high energy prices and inflation has done little to ease voter concerns.

The factor most closely correlated with Le Pen’s performance was life expectancy, which often serves as a catch-all barometer for general economic and social well-being.

In departments where Le Pen came first, females born in 2021 had life expectancy one year shorter than where Macron won.

In the two industrial northern departments where Le Pen did best – the Aisne and Pas-de-Calais – female life expectancy was two years below the national average. In Aisne, where Le Pen had her best first-round result with 39% of votes, nearly 30% of residents have no upper school diplomas, compared with a national average of 21%.

Taking note, for his first campaign stop after Sunday’s vote, Macron took the fight against Le Pen straight to the poor northern town of Denain.

Graphic: Le Pen outperformed in areas with high dropout rates –

Heading into the runoff round, Macron and Le Pen will both be also hunting for votes of supporters of hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in third in the first round just behind Le Pen with 22% of the votes.

The veteran firebrand leftist did best in urban areas with a higher share of young, university-educated voters who find Macron has drifted too far to the right for their tastes.

Melenchon won nearly half of the votes in northeastern Paris commuter suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where immigrants make up more than 30% of the population – the highest in France.

With those votes up for grabs, Le Pen and Macron will first have to convince people in the department to simply bother to vote as abstentions were higher there than anywhere else outside of Corsica.

($1 = 0.9203 euros)

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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