Paris (CNSNews.com) – President Obama threw his support Thursday behind independent French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron, in an unusual endorsement of a candidate in a key ally’s election just three days before voters go to the polls.
The former president in a video clip praised Macron for standing up for “liberal values,” saying that he “appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.”
“I’m not planning to get involved in many elections now that I don’t have to run for office again,” said Obama. “But the French election is very important to the future of France and the values that we care so much about.”
“I am supporting Emmanuel Macron to lead you forward," Obama said. “En Marche! Vive la France!”
It is the first time a former U.S. president has publicly endorsed a French presidential candidate. Experts and journalists covering the campaign called it a significant move that will probably boost Macron’s showing in Sunday’s vote.
Obama’s intervention came a day after the final debate between Macron, founder of the “En Marche (“Onwards!”) movement, and populist right-winger Marine Le Pen, a two-and-a-half-hour confrontation that felt more like a boxing match but ended with neither candidate landing a knockout blow.
Still, in the first opinion poll conducted after the debate, which drew 16.5 million television viewers, 63 percent of respondents thought Macron had done better, versus 34 percent who favored Le Pen’s performance.
The two clashed over numerous topics, including the European Union, the domestic economy, the pressing issues of security, terrorism and Islam, and the type of relations France should have with Russia and the United States.
Macron said France should work with Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially to resolve issues like the Syrian civil war, “but not submit to his diktat.”
“We have no reason to wage a cold war against Russia,” said Le Pen. “We have every reason to engage diplomatic, commercial, strategic relations with Russia because it is a great nation and Russia did not express hostility towards us.”
Le Pen said France should be independent, not submitting to the “imperialist vision” of either the U.S. or Russia, but be “equidistant” from the two powers.
Macron said if elected he would seek to work with the Trump administration on climate change issues.
‘Indulgent with Islamist fundamentalism’
Immigration remains a key part of Le Pen’s program and she criticized the mass influx of immigrants, resulting from the elimination of national borders within the E.U.
“This allowed them to come here and get all the advantages given by the state, mainly in health, accommodation and the amount of money given to jobless,” she said.
Le Pen said as president she would expel all illegal immigrants and place a ceiling of 10,000 legal immigrants a year – compared to 270,000 residence permits now issued yearly.
She also wants a referendum on whether France should exit the E.U., and argues that membership in the union is one of the main illnesses of the country.
Macron by contrast is a strong partisan of the European Union. He also does not want to reduce the number of immigrants coming to France but does want them to undergo French language training.
One the sharpest exchanges in the debate was over national security and terrorism, sensitive issues in a country where more than 230 people have been killed in attacks since 2015.
Le Pen accused Macron of being weak on security.
“You have no plan and you are indulgent with Islamist fundamentalism,” she charged.
Le Pen also accused Macron of being an ally of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), one of the country’s main Muslim organizations which she has pledged to dissolve if elected, accusing it of defending fundamentalism and of providing a platform for speakers who encourage hatred of Jews, non-believers and homosexuals.
Macron retorted that terrorism would be his priority as president, and accused Le Pen of being simplistic. He said he would increase the number of police, gendarmes and intelligence agents, and share information with all European countries to be more effective in fighting terrorism.
He denied knowing personally any members of the UOIF, and said that if it was proven that it spreads extremist ideas or does not obey to the laws of the republic, he would dissolve it immediately.
“I will lead a fight against Islamist terrorism at every level,” he said. “But what they [terrorists] want and the trap they are holding out for us, is the one that you offer – civil war,” he declared.
(After the debate, UOIF president Amar Lasfar in a statement expressed “respect” for Macron but denied links with his movement. He added that the organization could not vote for hate and racism, referring to Le Pen and her party.)
For many voters, economic issues are at the forefront of the concerns.
Macron, a former economics minister, is in favor of liberal reforms and steps to modernize the French economy while Le Pen leans towards protectionist trade measures, and wants an exit from the E.U. to be accompanied by adoption of a new currency to use internally, the new Franc.
Analysts generally praised Macron’s performance, while saying Le Pen had not acquitted herself well. Even her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National party, said she had not done particularly well in the debate.
Macron retains a sizeable lead in the opinion polls – 61 points to Le Pen’s 39.
(Patrick Goodenough contributed to this story.)