A leading French daily has rattled the ruling party and sparked intense speculation about next year's presidential election by suggesting that voters won't come to Emmanuel Macron's aid if he finds himself in a rematch with the far-right.
Votes from the left propelled centrist Macron to power in 2017 in a run-off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, just as they had helped Jacques Chirac in the 2002 election against Le Pen's father Jean-Marie.
The report in Liberation newspaper, based on accounts from hundreds of readers, said many left-leaning voters would no longer support Macron to prevent Le Pen taking power.
"I've blocked (the far right) in the past and this time it's over," read Liberation's shock front-page headline on Saturday -- a quote from one of the voters who told the paper they could no longer bring themselves to vote for Macron, whatever the cost.
Polls predict the 2022 election coming down to another duel between thetwo politicians who fought it out on a globalist-versus-nationalist platform in 2017.
But this time, they show Le Pen far closer to the halls of power, with a Harris Interactive poll, which was never published but was leaked to the media last month, showing the National Rally leader taking 48 percent of the vote in a run-off with the incumbent.
A survey by Ipsos-Steria in early February showed that her chances would be significantly boosted by a mass stayaway by left-wing voters in the event she faced Macron.
Following Socialist Francois Hollande's single-term presidency -- which ended in 2017 with him so unpopular he decided not to stand again -- the left is currently not tipped to make the run-off, with its vote split between Socialists, Greens and the hard-left France Unbowed.
Some of Liberation's readers accused the president, who campaigned as a centrist but has been accused of tacking to the right, of acting as a "president of the rich" -- a label dating from his decision early in his presidency to cut wealth taxes.
Others attacked his attempts to get the French to work longer before being eligible for a full pension as well as his crackdown on anti-government "yellow vest" protests in 2018-2019 and his government's tough rhetoric on immigration and radical Islam.
"Left-wing voters feel hurt and humiliated. They feel they are being forced to vote for a candidate who has not respected them," Remi Lefebvre, professor of political science at Lille University, told AFP.
Faced with the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Rally (formerly National Front) over the past two decades, mainstream French parties have regularly formed electoral pacts to bar the party winning office.
The pressure to join the "Republican front" against the far-right peaked in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen trumped leftwinger Lionel Jospin for a spot in the final against centre-right candidate Chirac.
Le Pen's breakthrough sent shockwaves through France and prompted left-wing voters to swing en masse behind Chirac, who won the run-off by a landslide.
But by 2017 the "everyone against Le Pen" strategy had already begun to unravel, with hard-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon notably refusing to endorse investment banker Macron against Marine Le Pen after he himself was knocked out of the running for president.
A former economy minister under Hollande, Macron has given key cabinet posts to allies of former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, such as Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Prime Minister Jean Castex.
In the past few weeks, his government has been accused of openly courting right-wing voters, with Darmanin criticising Marine Le Pen in a debate over her "softness" on Islamists.
Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal warned about the spread of "Islamo-leftism" in French universities, a term often used by the far-right to demonise leftists who defend Muslims.
"Whether on social policy, civil liberties or political rhetoric, people have the impression, I think justifiably, that Macron is recycling the programme of the National Rally," Eric Coquerel, an MP for France Unbowed, told AFP.
Coquerel voted for Macron in the run-off of the 2017 election but said "quite frankly, if it were to be done again I think I would have the same reaction as these voters (who say they will not support him again)".
Gilles Finchelstein, director of the left-leaning Jean Jaures thinktank, said left-wing voters were "fed up" being asked to vote for the right or centre-right.
But if the election did produce another Macron-Le Pen face-off, "some of the left-wing voters who say today they will not go to vote will probably nonetheless vote for Macron," he predicted.
Paris, France | AFP