Could Marine Le Pen pull it off? Her campaign is gathering steam ahead of the first round of the French Presidential election on Sunday, writes Mattie Brignal from France

Until recently, Emmanuel Macron looked unassailable. Now his supporters are worried.

“Unless he gets his act together, he’s stuffed,” says Eric Bouscary, a chimney sweep from Castelnau-Montratier, a small market town in the Lot in south-west France, who plans to vote for Macron. “Le Pen is smart and makes people believe she’s something she’s not.”

Macron crushed Le Pen, the nationalist leader of the National Rally, in the second round vote five years ago by 66% to 34%. All the signs point to the two meeting again in the run-off on 24 April. But the margins are likely to be much tighter this time. The latest Harris Interactive poll has Macron on course to pip Le Pen by just 51.5 to 48.5.

The political establishment is also spooked. The idea taking hold is that Macron, haughty and aloof, hasn’t devoted enough attention to the day-to-day problems facing French voters, preferring to chat with Vladimir Putin on the phone and pose as senior world statesman.

This has opened the door for Le Pen, who has focussed her campaign on the spiralling cost of living crisis driven by inflation and high energy bills.

To defeat Macron, Le Pen – who has had some success rebranding herself as the “acceptable” face of the far-right – will need help from the left.

As Walter Ellis writes, below, the President’s biggest threat might well be the extremes of France’s political spectrum forming a united front.

In 2017, many left-wing voters held their noses and voted for Macron, who has tacked to the right in his first term on cultural issues and plans to raise the retirement age and loosen labour market rules if he gets a second.

The Corbyn-esque left-wing radical, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is polling in third place at 17% and unlikely to make the run-off, so what his supporters choose to do next matters.

Half of those who plan to vote for Mélenchon have told pollsters they would abstain in the second round if their man doesn’t make it. But three quarters of the remainder say they would back Le Pen.

It’s in areas like the Lot where the race might be decided. In 2017, Mélenchon came a close second to Macron in the first round of voting in the rural departement whose economy relies on agriculture and tourism. Le Pen came fourth and only secured 27% in the run-off.

“My son will vote for Mélenchon”, says Eric about his son, Arnault, 24. “He thinks Macron and Le Pen are as bad as each other.”

Macron is still a firm favourite for a second term. The bookies put the chances of Le Pen evicting him from the Élysée at 17%. But in a tight race that pits two unpalatable options against each other, it could be the Arnaults who swing it.