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Emmanuel Macron Argues for Second Term as French President

PARIS — Speaking to a country still reeling from a pandemic and made anxious by war in Europe, President Emmanuel Macron of France made his case for a second term on Thursday by portraying himself as best equipped to protect the nation.

In a 90-minute speech before hundreds of journalists, Mr. Macron began by pledging to reinforce France’s military and defense before enumerating a long and varied list of other resources and values he promised to protect: France’s agriculture, its culture, its children against bullying.

Mr. Macron adopted a markedly different tone from the one that characterized his upstart candidacy five years ago. Back then, he embodied a disruptive force that was ready to reform a change-resistant France, whether it liked it or not, and turn it into a start-up nation.

Now, Mr. Macron said that his platform was “drawing upon the crises” that had left a mark on his presidency to bring a divided country back together and meet its challenges.

“This is a platform that aims to protect our fellow citizens, our nation, to emancipate each and every one by giving back chances, transmitting our values, our culture, our country,” Mr. Macron said at the news conference, in the northern Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, adding that France would “certainly face crises and large disruptions once again.”

In a campaign that has been overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic and then the war in Ukraine, the news conference also served as a rebuttal to rising criticism, among his rivals and in the news media, that Mr. Macron has been trying to coast to victory without engaging in any debate or laying out an agenda.

With polls showing him easily winning one of the two spots in the second and final round of voting, Mr. Macron has refused to engage in any debate with his opponents before the first round on April 10.

On Monday, he participated in a program involving eight of the 12 official candidates on the TF1 television channel, but his campaign team demanded such strict measures that any possibility of debate was eliminated: TF1 journalists interviewed each candidate separately, conspicuously ensuring that they did not address or even run into each other on the set.

Then, on Wednesday, the BFMTV news channel said it would cancel its own debate because of the absences of Mr. Macron and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who is running second in the polls behind the president. His team said he had a scheduling conflict, and Ms. Le Pen withdrew in response.

Wrapping himself in the grandeur of the French presidency, Mr. Macron has sought to remain above his rivals and the fray — a strategy that has yielded even greater dividends since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion has given Mr. Macron a strong boost in the polls, offering him a lofty perch to act as a wartime leader and Europe’s diplomat-in-chief while his rivals, several of whom were sympathetic to the Russian president before the conflict, squabble to face off against him.

The latest polls place Mr. Macron in the lead with roughly 30 percent of voting intentions in the first round of voting — far ahead of Ms. Le Pen, who last faced him in the second round of voting in 2017 and is now polling at about 18 percent.

But Mr. Macron’s refusal to debate has turned into an issue of its own, especially after the lackluster response to his first — and, so far, only — meeting with the public after officially declaring his candidacy. The news media revealed that questions posed to the president during the meeting with voters in a suburb of Paris this month has been carefully screened.

Rivals have warned that Mr. Macron would not enjoy a strong mandate if he were to be re-elected without fully engaging in the race.

Gérard Larcher, the president of the Senate and a member of the center-right opposition party, Les Républicains, said Mr. Macron “wants to be re-elected without ever having really been a candidate, without a campaign, without debating, with the confrontation of ideas.’’

“If there’s no campaign, the winner’s legitimacy will be questioned,’’ Mr. Larcher told Le Figaro.

Mr. Macron has countered that none of his predecessors had taken part in a debate before the first round of voting.

“Debating with journalists does not seem any more disgraceful or any less illuminating than debating with other candidates,” he said at the news conference Thursday.

Over four hours, Mr. Macron promised to give schools and hospitals more local flexibility, simplify and centralize welfare benefit payments, and raise the retirement age to 65, after his plans to overhaul France’s pension system caused massive strikes and were dropped during the pandemic.

Mr. Macron also pledged to aim for full employment by 2027 and vowed to better balance some welfare benefits with working obligations.

He said his platform, including tax breaks, would cost roughly 50 billion euros per year, or about $55.6 billion, paid for with savings made through pension and unemployment reforms, cuts to red tape, and more growth.

But so far, without any real confrontation or back-and-forth between Mr. Macron and the other candidates on their platforms or their vision for France, the presidential campaign has been shaped mostly by external forces.

One of those has been rising energy prices, which started increasing as the world economy emerged from Covid-19 shutdowns but have continued to surge since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The French government has introduced a package of subsidies and tax breaks to help companies and households foot mounting gas and oil bills, as Mr. Macron seeks to avoid a repeat of the Yellow Vest movement that roiled France in 2018 and 2019, sparked by an increase in gasoline taxes and fueled by a much broader sense of alienation felt by those living outside Paris.

An equally pressing and much more unexpected issue burst into the campaign this month when Corsica, a mountainous French island in the Mediterranean with a deeply rooted nationalist movement, flared with violent riots that have injured scores of police officers.

The protests were triggered by the brutal prison house assault in mainland France earlier this month of Yvan Colonna, a Corsican man who was convicted of the 1998 murder of a government-appointed prefect on the island.

Many in Corsica feel that Mr. Colonna, who is now in a coma, has been unfairly treated by the French state, which — until the assault — had refused to take steps to transfer him onto the island.

Scrambling to stop the rioting, Mr. Macron quickly dispatched the interior minister to the island to calm tensions.

But comments suggesting that the government was willing to discuss Corsican “autonomy” — a tricky topic in highly centralized France — gave Mr. Macron’s opponents much-needed ammunition.

“One has to bring order back to Corsica before starting negotiations,” Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for Les Républicains, told France Inter radio on Wednesday as she accused Mr. Macron of quickly caving in to the violence to safeguard his campaign.

Ms. Le Pen expressed even stronger opposition, saying on Twitter that Mr. Macron’s “cynical cronyism” would “shatter the integrity of French territory.”

“Corsica must remain French,” she said.

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