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French voters will decide whether to give Macron a 3rd term this weekend

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

French voters go to the polls this weekend to decide whether to give President Emmanuel Macron a second term. Macron is in the lead, but far-right leader Marine Le Pen is right behind and has rapidly closed the gap. Ten other candidates trail them. Le Pen's supporters say their candidate is different this time around and has redefined herself. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley attended a Le Pen rally in the south of France and sends us this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting, inaudible).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A better prepared, poised and more moderate Marine Le Pen took the stage in front of thousands of supporters in Perpignan Thursday night. It's Le Pen's third attempt at the presidency. Last time, she lost handily to Macron. This time, she sounds different. Gone are her fearful messages on immigration and the European Union. Le Pen this time around is about unity and inclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "French people of all origins and religions, from the continent to the islands, I salute you respectfully and call on you - your country needs you."

Analysts say Le Pen has managed to detoxify the party started by her father 50 years ago. She even changed the name. The National Front became the National Rally. A look at this crowd is further proof. There are white-collar executives, young people, women.

Forty-six-year-old Thierry Tsagalos runs a startup. He says he used to vote traditional right but considers candidate Valerie Pecresse too weak. He says Le Pen has gained credibility with mainstream conservative voters.

THIERRY TSAGALOS: (Through interpreter) I support Le Pen. She's solid. She's not excessive or radical in her language. There is no point in dividing the French. The point is to make a good project, and she does not exclude people.

BEARDSLEY: Tsagalos calls Le Pen a positive populist. Voters here bristle if they're referred to as far-right. Le Pen also looks more moderate this time around, thanks to candidate Eric Zemmour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Zemmour, a former right-wing TV pundit, regularly rages about immigration and Islam. While he surged in December and January, Zemmour's message appears to have lost steam, especially after the war in Ukraine began. His previous support of President Vladimir Putin hurt him further.

At the Perpignan rally, retiree Patrick Froment says Zemmour sounds a lot like Le Pen's more extreme father. Marine Le Pen has modernized for the 21st century, he says.

PATRICK FROMENT: (Through interpreter) She's a very poised, calm woman now. She's really hit her stride. She doesn't get ruffled. She doesn't get angry anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LE PEN: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen regularly evokes Macron in her rallies - his arrogance, his support of the rich and the elites, his supposed disrespect of the little guy. She contrasts that with what she says is her support of French workers - the teacher, the nurse, the farmer. That's what drew local winegrower Ludovic Servant to Le Pen.

LUDOVIC SERVANT: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: He waves a Le Pen flag as her fleet of campaign buses pulls away after the rally. Servant, originally from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, says Macron lacked respect for the little people, and Le Pen wants to take care of them.

SERVANT: I like Marine Le Pen because...

(Through interpreter) ...Because she's the only one who's very attentive to those who live in rural areas, because she is sensitive. She thinks about what kinds of problems people in the countryside, in agriculture face.

BEARDSLEY: Throughout this campaign, Le Pen has focused on economics and bread-and-butter issues. It seems to be paying off as her numbers are surging. She is only three points behind Emmanuel Macron in the latest polls.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Perpignan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT REVIVAL'S "THE PASTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.