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MARSEILLE, France — Eight days before the decisive final round of the French presidential election, President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday appealed to voters to prevent a far-right victory by Marine Le Pen that would upend Europe. “Choose your enemies!” he told supporters at a rally in Marseille, the second-largest city in France.

His presidency has in many ways been intertwined with Marseille, which on Saturday he compared to a “laboratory for the republic” and has described as his “city of heart.” He has dedicated outsize attention to its social and economic woes, promising billions in investment, with aspirations of transforming it into a “capital of the Mediterranean.”

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But in a sign of just how controversial his presidency has been, Macron finds himself scrambling for support here. As he appealed to Marseille voters to give him a second term on Saturday, protesters booed and whistled in the distance, with posters comparing him to a vampire or showing him shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Macron supporters crowded around him in a park, but much of it remained empty, and they at times appeared less energized than the backers of far-right leader Le Pen in recent days. In the first round of the election last weekend, Macron finished second in Marseille, behind the far-left candidate. He gained little ground over his 2017 first-round performance while the far-right made significant inroads, as it did across France.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s supporters crowded around him in a park where large parts remained empty on April 16 during a campaign stop. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Macron, 44, remains the front-runner to win the second round of the French vote next Sunday, which would mark the first reelection of an incumbent French president since 2002. But Le Pen now appears closer to the presidency than ever before. In many ways, the struggle for Macron to win more voters in Marseille reflects the broader issues that have hindered his campaign and presented opportunities for his challenger.

“If you look at what he promised in 2017 in terms of results, he achieved most,” said Joseph de Weck, the author of a book on the Macron presidency, citing a staunch defense of the European Union and low unemployment in France, which were primary concerns five years ago. “But the way he introduced these changes and managed to get these policies done was completely different to what he promised,” said de Weck.

When Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, launched his own political movement in 2016, he promised to bring a new style of politics to the Élysée Palace, without any obligations to established parties. He portrayed himself as a progressive anti-establishment and pro-E.U. candidate, and vowed to make French politics more representative of the electorate and transparent to the public.

His victory against Le Pen in 2017 came shortly after the United States had elected Donald Trump and Britain had voted to leave the European Union. In France and elsewhere, many voters hoped the election of Macron would mark the end of a nationalist streak.

In the following years, Macron remained a strong defender of the European Union, made the French economy more competitive, and appeared eager to have France take an outsize role on the international stage, including during the war in Ukraine. “In the current context, I think we need to have a tough president who has experience,” said Denis Morandeau, 48, a supporter at the rally.

But domestically, his style of politics has often been described as opaque and deaf to mounting criticism. “The price of the success was a process that was incredibly top-down,” said de Weck, “and there is a lot of resentment” of that today.

In his speeches over the past five years, Macron has often emphasized national unity, equality and prosperity, themes he returned to in his Saturday event overlooking the old port in Marseille.

French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to Marseille’s voters on April 16 to give him a second term, promising a “complete renewal” of his presidency. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

But after five years, those references rang hollow to many left-leaning voters on the busy market streets of Marseille. That group of voters broadly backed him over Le Pen five years ago. Now their choice between Macron, Le Pen or abstention is seen as decisive for the outcome of the upcoming vote. Many said they worry that economic growth has come at the expense of social benefits and that Macron has adopted a conservative framing of immigration and security.

Despite having partially been elected by a center-left group, Macron cracked down on foreign influences in French Muslim communities, passed controversial national security laws, and backed an interior minister who mocked Le Pen for being too “soft.”

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Last month, Macron surprised observers when he launched his reelection campaign with the unpopular pitch of raising the retirement age to 65. Days later, amid mounting criticism, he suggested he was not so sure about it anymore.

“The middle class is disappearing. It is a catastrophe,” said Morgane Calmettes, 27, who said she will not vote in the election next weekend. “He gave just a bit of money to the schools, but a lot to the police.”

Charlene Venzal, 40, who works with people in financially precarious situations, said she had not “seen any improvement” in her work as a result of his decisions. But she will most likely vote for him anyway to prevent a far-right victory, she said.

The criticism that Macron has been largely blind to the concerns of the middle class and people living in poverty has stuck to him throughout the campaign, despite significant government support for French businesses during the pandemic that helped to save jobs and allowed the country to recover more quickly than some of its neighbors.

One of the reasons voters have not credited Macron more for such moves may be past remarks which made him seem arrogant and insincere about helping ordinary people, despite some of his recent spending decisions. In 2017, for instance, he said he would not give in to anyone, including “lazy” people.

“He represented this motto of, if you really want it and really try hard, you can achieve everything,” said de Weck. “And that may have worked in his case. But for grand parts of French society, that is just a lie, it is an illusion that is not reality.”

In his speech in Marseille, Macron appeared to have taken note. He attacked Le Pen, whose campaign has focused on inflation and the rising cost of living, for proposals he charged would widen inequalities. He emphasized his efforts to tackle the causes of social discontent in Marseille and elsewhere. And he signaled a willingness to do more to fight climate change, a key concern among left-leaning voters who feel that Macron has done too little to address the problem.

French voters are known for showing little forgiveness for incumbent presidents. But the Macron campaign team in recent weeks seemed to seek just that, appealing for some understanding of the difficult circumstances that shaped his presidency.

Before he took the stage on Saturday, his campaign showed a video on large screens with dramatic music recalling the crises he faced over the past years. His supporters watched in silence as scenes passed of violent yellow vest protests, overwhelmed coronavirus field hospitals and French troops being withdrawn from Mali.

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Some of those crises were beyond his control, but the yellow vest movement, prompted by a proposed fuel tax hike, portended frustration with his presidency as early as 2018. Macron was able to quell the protests that rocked the country, partially by making concessions, but also by going on a listening tour across the country.

“Macron correctly diagnosed the gilets jaunes as a social, not a political, movement,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. But what could have been an alarm bell is now widely seen as a failed chance to adapt his approach, both in style and substance. “He failed, in response, to offer opportunity or even hope,” Dungan said.

Marseille has some of poorest districts in Europe and lagging government help has been felt more strongly than in most places in France. Three years after Macron suggested in 2017 that he would eradicate “medical deserts,” areas without access to hospitals or general practitioners, the problem had only worsened when the pandemic hit France in early 2020.

Macron last year announced additional investment, including a substantial share for hospitals, is still seen as insufficient by medical professionals who witnessed multiple coronavirus waves ravage underserved districts in Marseille over the past two years.

“The will is clearly there and efforts have been made,” said Jean Luc Jouve, head of the Marseille hospital commission. “But what is needed is a clear change in paradigm” like “a Marshall Plan for health.”

One of the people who have filled the gap has been Slim Hadiji, a doctor in the impoverished north of Marseille, who on top of his normal work, tried for months to address vaccination inequalities by providing shots to vulnerable individuals at home.

Hadiji says the situation is only getting worse. “Doctors are starting to give up. Many are heading into retirement and are not replaced,” he said. “We end up with neighborhoods without a doctor.”

When Macron tried to address the desolate state of many schools in the city last year, that also drew criticism. In a county where education is highly standardized, he proposed what amounted to a small revolution with an experiment that would empower 50 school principals to choose their own teachers.

His plan, presented as an effort to combat inequalities, was attacked by opponents as something that would aggravate the situation by creating one group of privileged schools and another group facing decay. Unions launched a petition to stop the project.

The criticism in Marseille hinted at how deeply the perception of Macron as a “president for the rich” has become ingrained, even when he ponders solutions that are common in other nations. Le Pen has been rising in the polls over the past few weeks, which appears in large part rooted in her reinforcement of that sentiment. She is presenting herself as more moderate than five years ago and as the only alternative for change.

Addressing supporters on Saturday, Macron sought to dispel that notion. “I have no interest in doing five more years,” he said. “I want them to be five years of complete renewal.”

Scott Clement and Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.

French President Emmanuel Macron remains the front-runner to win next Sunday’s decisive second round of the French vote. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

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