My Kind of Hotel

It was the perfect place for R&R.  A small hotel (11 rooms). Splendid  views of mountains and a lake. A pool amidst greenery and blossoms. A comfortable room, nice staff, good breakfast – and a menagerie of sorts.  Plus, and most important, tranquility.

The view from Suites du Lac, Lake Bourget and mountains.

I loved it all. For my recent “cure” at Aix les Bains in eastern France,  I booked two weeks at Suites du Lac, a hotel outside of the town. I traveled to Aix by train. On the down side, the hotel was not convenient to the spa center without a car.   I took a taxi then bus to reach the spa for my treatments each day.

Never mind.  I had time, enjoyed conversing with my regular taxi driver Eric, as well as bus passengers.

During my second day at the hotel, I heard peculiar sounds while lounging on my balcony.  Maa… Maa  A goat?  Clucking. Crackling.  Chickens? No way. I was not on a farm nor in the country.  Perhaps too much spa water had seeped into my brain.    Later I noticed guests looking over a railing on the terrace at the end of the property.  I must investigate.

Aha. Below at a lower level there they were:  The creatures responsible for the sounds.  Two goats and a bevy of chickens.  I was fascinated. The chickens were beauties, all different and exotic.  The goats were small and cute. I took photos.

The Suites du Lac was built in 2007 by partners Jose and Emanuel.  They share responsibilities for the hotel management.  Emanuel is in charge of administration and everything indoors. Jose takes care  of the animals and the grounds.

Jose knows his chickens and they know him.

I learned lots about chickens from Jose who is an animal lover and passionate about poultry.  He had chickens as a child, he explained, and now likes different races.  His flock consists of 20 different breeds.  He knows the characteristics of each.  “This one is South American.  That one lays white eggs like American chickens…” European chickens lay marron-colored eggs.

The life span of commercial chickens is just 1 ½ years due to their diet, he told me.  But his special fowl can reach the age of 10, unless they fall victim to a fox.  Several years ago, he lost 20 birds to a fox.  “A fox kills anything that moves,” he said.  The fox ate only one of the chickens it had killed.  Jose’s chicken/goat pen is fenced, but a fox can jump the fence.  He has constructed an enclosure under the terrace with an automatic door that closes at 10 pm.  Every evening he goes out to rescue the chickens which have chosen a tree instead of the enclosed hen house  for safety. They fly up and nestle into the branches to hide out.  

I was surprised  to see how easily he captured the chickens – no resistance.  “They know me,” he said.

He has only hens which lay about 20 eggs per day.  He did have a rooster, but neighbors complained about the too early wake-up call.

Two 16-year-old miniature Pinschers and a cat also live at Suites du Lac.  And, for a brief period  of time during my stay, a young injured  pigeon.  Jose rescued it from a bakery where it cowered in a corner.  After a few days of TLC, he released it.

Since I too am an animal lover, the animals were a bonus for me.  

Unfortunately, it was hot, very hot during my June stay in Aix-les-Bains.  Temperatures were in the upper 90s F every day.  The town tourist office offers a variety of interesting walking tours, but there was no way I could  enjoy a walking tour in that heat.  I hung out at the hotel pool every afternoon after my treatments.  Even that was hot, but I swam my laps and took shelter under an umbrella.  I read.  I napped. I relaxed.  I was alone. No responsibilities. It was bliss. 

When I needed a stretch, I walked over to look down at the critters.  The chickens huddled under oleander branches to escape the sun.  The goats found shade along the periphery of the enclosure.

Relaxation at Suites du Lac is very therapeutic.

The ambience at dusk when everyone had left the pool was especially soothing. I watched the sky change colors and mountain silhouettes grow darker.  It was all so quiet, peaceful and beautiful.

Suites du Lac does not have a regular restaurant offering full meals.  After my treatments I usually stopped in town and had lunch at a restaurant.  I tried many and savored some delicious meals.  In the evening I often joined other guests on the terrace and ordered one of the hotel’s offerings: Omelets, pizza, salads.

I had some tasty lunches in Aix les Bains, including above, a French version of Surf and Turf: Salmon and Chicken smothered in a lobster sauce

Unfortunately my spa treatments did not do much for my bodily ailments. However, Suites du Lac therapy was the best for the spirit.

Les Suites du Lac:

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Coming soon: The mighty Dolomites.

Testing spa waters – and strange treatments

Spa treatment Berthollaix.

“What is going on with those … white coffins? Iron lungs? Strange toilets?” friend Betty asked on Facebook.

I had similar thoughts and wondered what I had gotten myself into when, on day one of my two week “cure” program, I followed an aide to the “Berthollaix”  room.  There it was – not a coffin, nor an iron lung, not even a strange toilet, but bizarre Berthollaix.   Even the name was foreboding.

The aide closed the door, told me to shed my robe and flip flops, and sit in this strange, hard plastic chair with protrusions  digging into my back.  Was this some kind of electric chair about to bombard me with painful shocks?   It did not appear too friendly. She then placed a large plastic shield over my entire body.  I was trapped, locked in.  She closed the door and left. I do not scare easily, but this made me nervous.  How could I escape if, whatever was about to happen, was too painful? What if she forgot me?

Suddenly warm air engulfed my body. The air changed to tepid water, thermal water rich in minerals for which the spa is known. Had the chair been comfortable and minus those nasty things piercing my back, it would have been pleasant.  I endured, about 10, 12 minutes.   The aide returned to release me. Unscathed, I moved on to the next treatment. 

Spa Thermal Chevalley and spa pool

I have serious arthritis and a serious limp. Since I had a two-week break from my duties as Alzheimer care giver – Bob’s daughter and son were minding him – I decided to focus on my decaying body. Off I went to the Spa Thermal
Chevalley at Aix-les-Bains, France, a health spa known for rheumatology treatments.

It all begins with a quick visit to a spa doctor who decides which  treatments are best for you. He asked me to bend over and touch my toes.  No sweat.  I had to show off, went a step further, and put my hands flat on the floor.  He was impressed. Maybe I am not in such bad shape after all?  He specified three different treatments one day, followed by two different ones the next.  Only one hour per day total.  

After Berthollaix, I dutifully marched off with many others, all clad in white spa robes and clutching their blue treatment bag, to the next station. Under the obligatory white robe, all wear a bathing suit, and keep it on, except for the mud treatment, day two for me. 

Douche penetrante  (penetrating shower) was my favorite.  No ominous machines, but  a massage table under jets of warm spa water.  I lay under the delightful shower  while a therapist massaged my aging body.  It was heavenly.  “Don’t stop.”  But he did.  

The next treatment was “Pedidaix” – another weird contraption to sit in, several rows of these monsters in a large room. This time alternating jets of warm and cold water hosed the lower legs. Good for circulation, I was told.

Pedidaix is said to help circulation. Cool spring water quenches thirst.

I could have skipped Pedidaix and replaced it with more of the mud wrap, a treatment  on day two of my program. I lay on a slab of warm, milk chocolate brown earth which had been mixed with thermal water.  An aide lathered my arms and the tops of my legs with more of the viscous matter, then wrapped me in plastic.   I felt the warmth penetrating my pores, visualized it soothing my pain.  If anything could cure, this must be it.

The thermal water at Aix-les-Bains (Aix the baths) has been revered for centuries.   It was first discovered by Celtic knights.  In 120 BC the Romans built baths there.  The sulphurated waters come from a kilometer deep in the earth emerging at 38 degrees Celsius ( 71 degrees Fahrenheit). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties  are attributed to the cherished water. 

I spoke to a woman from Paris on her fifth visit to the Spa.  “I would not be this good if I did not come every year,” she told me.  “It helps for six months.  I can forget my medications.”   Another Parisian who is a regular said it does not cure but soothes. 

Most “curists” were on a three-week program paid for by the national French health insurance if one had a doctor’s prescription. I could have had the prescription,  but I did not have the three weeks required for insurance payment.  I paid about $600 for my program.

These gizmos treat arthritic hands. I was spared this treatment.

The Spa is run with assembly-line efficiency:  Lists, checkmarks, numbers.  Sign in here, get your towel  and robe there, move on to another desk and take a number.  Every day some 1,000 treatments are administered.   About 200 caregivers  are employed to administer the treatments,  each catering to 22 clients per day.   There are many more female than male clients, and most are of a “certain age.” 

Every post needs a cat. “Le Dent du Chat,” (cat ‘s tooth), a bronze by Michael Bassompierre in central Aix-les-Bains, is named after a mountain peak seen from the town.

Aix-les-Bains is a pleasant town in eastern France, population 31,000,  on the shores of  Lake Bourget, the country’s largest natural lake of glacial origin.  Thermal waters were the main attraction for many years. The rich and noble, many who came to take the waters, popularized the town during the Belle Epoque (1871-1914).  These days water sports on the lake and hikes in the nearby mountains are major drawing cards.

My two weeks away were very therapeutic.  Most of the treatments were soothing.  Unfortunately I have no lasting physical benefit.  But, I did profit from my break, mostly, I think, thanks to blissful relaxation at my beautiful, small, tranquil and unusual hotel.  More about that in my next post.

The best therapy: Relaxation at Les Suites du Lac

Will you return next year to the spa? – a question I heard often.  No.  One encounter with Bertholliax and Pedidaix was enough for me.

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Croatia Calling

Terraced beach on the Dalmatian coast near Dubrovnik

 Last September I had the good fortune to accompany my friend Karen to her apartment on the Croatian island of Milna.  She insisted on doing all the driving, about 1,200 kilometres or 750 miles. I felt like chauffeured royalty.

Port at Milna

 En route we detoured to Varenna along Lake Como in northern Italy for a two-day break.  (See a previous post, “Bellissimo Lago di Como,” with many photos of the stunning area.) 

Serenity on the Dalmatian coast

The island of Mljet. There is a National Park on the western part of the island.

The journey from Varenna to Milna was long. We waited in a line of cars for almost two hours to cross the border from Slovenia into Croatia. When we reached Split after a day and half of driving from Varenna, my dedicated driver finally had a rest. We boarded our first ferry for the trip to her island. 

Sunset on the Adriatic

Ferries, all sizes,  are the mode of transport  among the Croatian islands. The country claims more than 1,000 islands, but most are small and uninhabited. Some ferries transport cars and people. Some are for passengers only.  Backpackers, families with kids and dogs in tow, old and young – all aboard.  We rode many during our week’s stay.

Karen’s apartment sits atop a hill not far from the ferry stop in Milna.  This was her last visit. She had recently sold the apartment which she had owned for 13 years.  The long trips to reach Milna were getting to be too much.

During our stay we visited other islands, swam in sparkling waters at idyllic beaches, and ate very well. Croatia is paradise for fish and seafood lovers.  We savored  monk fish with truffle sauce, black risotto with shrimp, fettucine with seafood, mussels, calamari, and scrumptious seafood platters. 

I was keen to visit Dubrovnik where I had been many, many  years ago on assignment for the newspaper Stars and Stripes. I remembered those monumental city walls.

Le Stradun, main artery in the old city of Dubrovnik

Instead of staying in the city, we splurged on a luxurious  coastal hotel.    A bus took us to town where we joined numerous other visitors to walk atop the walls which are considered one of the best-preserved medieval fortification systems in Europe. Wall statistics:  1,940 meters long encompassing five forts, 16 towers and bastions. And steps: 1,080.

A Dubrovnik must: A walk/climb on the ancient walls around the town
Get your exercise climbing 1,080 steps on Dubrovnik’s walls.

More steps, a grand total of 4,343, are within the city perimeter. And cats.  Everywhere. As a  cat lover, I was thrilled and spent too much time trying to get the perfect feline photo.  The kitties  are accustomed to all the attention and seem to pose for photos as they lounge in the middle of plazas, take a cat nap on restaurant chairs, curl up in flower pots, saunter through cobbled alleys.

Dubrovnik cats are considered its oldest citizens.  Their ancestors helped fight the bubonic plague carried by rats.  The plague ravaged the city in the 14th century when Dubrovnik, known as Ragusa, was a main trading hub between Europe and the Ottoman Empire.  Trading boats, coming from all around the Mediterranean,  brought goods to the city, ship cats who disembarked — and the plague.   The cats were welcomed and treated well for their help in fighting the disease.

12th century cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

Even more cats wander freely in Kotor, a coastal town in neighboring Montenegro.  I had read about the country’s spectacular coast and wanted to visit since it was so close  We set off to Kotor with scenery photo opps the entire way. Those travel articles did not exaggerate.  Kotor, like Dubrovnik, has a medieval old town, lively squares and twisty streets.

A stop for a stroll in Perast on the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

The Kotor cat is a symbol of good luck.  As in Dubrovnik, cats originally arrived via ships. They helped control the rat population, as well as snakes and other nasty critters from  nearby mountains. Today the cat also contributes to the Kotor economy.   Cat shops selling feline souvenirs and cat paraphernalia are popular.  There is a cat museum. As one blogger wrote, Kotor is for “cat-o-holics” (me).

Before we returned to Milna, we spent a day lounging at our hotel, marveling at the beauty of the surroundings, swimming in the clear water, and taking too many photos.  We did not want to leave.

I loved swimming in these waters, but was too chicken to jump from the rocks.

Croatia rates three Michelin stars plus – definitely “worth  a visit.” Croatians are friendly folk, and English is widely spoken.

 Thank you, Karen, guide extraordinaire, for sharing your  swansong journey with me.

More photos follow.

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Croatia is a Mecca for sailors and their boats. In Milna we met a Texan with his boat.
Blissful beach in Montenegro
Primosten, a village and municipality on the Adriatic coast

Up on the farm

Agriturismo L’Oasi del Rossese

Way, way up:  A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road.  We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes.  Lots of overgrown vegetation all around.  More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each  

This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean.  I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles.   How much farther?  I was nervous.  Did we miss it?

Alas, a small sign.  “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua.  Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian.  Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy.  In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.

Bob, Steve and Yoshie.

Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed  us to our rooms.  My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome  coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance.  Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views.  Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.

We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons.  A group was celebrating a birthday.  I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me.  “I think I know you.  Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”?   Yes.  We sat with Wayne and his wife Veronique, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago.   It was Veronique who told me about this agriturismo.  They have a farm nearby.

Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain.  The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.

Nino, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), Stefano and Marinella.

We were hoping to see farm animals.  Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits.  I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful.  I hated to think of their future.

Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here.  Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged.  The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally. 

Yoshie and Steve hiked to the village of Perinaldo.

Food is a big attraction at agriturismi.  Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast.  Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes:  Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med.  This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade.  Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert:  a strawberry tarte.  Plus, a bottle of Rossese.

Rossese (red wine) display in Dolceacqua

Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking.  Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees.  Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited.  They only sell to guests and a few local clients.  

“People are happy here,” said Marinella.  She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow.  Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said.   In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Dolceacqua, photo by Yoshie.

Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit.  Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities.  However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy.  In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.

In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times.  Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village.   What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?

Steve explores the Dolceacqua old town.

According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops.  Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?

Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture.  I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian. 

“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained.  In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes  … a bit like Italian drivers.

Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.

AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298. Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.

Siesta in Dolceacqua

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France:  Macron vs. Le Pen

The world is watching

I am worried for France, for Europe, for the world.   Could Macron vs. Le Pen 2022 be a Clinton vs.Trump 2016 scenario? I was convinced Hillary would win.  The polls said so.  How could intelligent people vote for Trump?  The polls were wrong, although Clinton did win the popular vote.  French polls are predicting a Macron victory, but many detest the country’s president, just as many detested Hillary.  This is Le Pen’s third bid for the presidency.  In 2017 Macron triumphed with 66% of the vote.  It will be much, much closer this time.  And, the similarities between Le Pen and Trump are frightening.

 I am now a French citizen. I voted for the first time in France in round one of the country’s presidential election, and will vote in round two on April 24.  Much like the U.S., France is very divided. Macron, a centrist, is considered a president of the rich by many.  Too many feel left out, ignored by the political elite. They blame Macron for inflation just as so many Americans blame Biden for inflation.  They are against immigration and want to reclaim France for the French.

There was a mind boggling field of 12 candidates in round one. Macron and Le Pen beat out all others.

The French are also disillusioned with politics.  In the first round, 26% of voters abstained, the lowest turnout since the 2002 election.  This could be higher in the second round as many voters dislike both candidates. 

Le Pen, representing the far-right National Rally party, has softened her extreme right image. She is a die-hard cat lover and has appeared on television at-home interviews cuddling her felines. Her campaign is all about pocket-book issues, appealing to those suffering the pain of inflation. Her supporters believe she cares more about them than Macron does. She has gained mega points on the likeability chart.

Town hall in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, where I vote.

“I’ll be the president of real life and above all of your purchasing power,”  she told a cheering crowd at a rally.  Although she has toned down her anti-immigration rhetoric, she is still a racist at heart. She wants to ban the hijab in public places and curb immigration.   She blames immigration for “feeding crime and ruining our social services.”  At the rally, her attacks on “anarchic immigration” drew the loudest applause.   She wants to withdraw France from NATO.  She has had close ties with Russia. 

While many dislike Macron, he has been given high marks for his handling of the economy, the pandemic and European affairs. He has been actively involved in diplomatic efforts to end the Ukraine war. He met with Putin. But, as the cost of living soars, all this takes a back seat.

In a guest essay which appeared in the New York Times, Dominique Moisi of the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank, had this assessment: “What is at stake on April 24 is nothing less than the future of democracy in France and in Europe.” 

Voting in r0und one of the French presidential election

I asked several friends and acquaintances whom they would vote for and why.  This is by no means an accurate sample of all French voters.  Nonetheless, here are their views:

Michele, caregiver for the elderly

“I am very disappointed in Macron.  He is for the rich.  I will vote for Le Pen.  She cares about inflation and the average person. But, it’s very difficult.  We don’t really have a choice.  I am not convinced one is better than the other.”

Thomas, retired American designer with dual citizenship

“I don’t’ like Macron.  I don’t like his style, his story. He is like an actor. It’s a shame the choice is so limited…Le Pen is a hard-working, dedicated politician. I like her.  I listen to her speeches.  She makes sense.  She is bright, intelligent.  We need change.  I will be forced to vote for her.  I think she will win.  A lot of people feel l like I do.”

Nicole, retired admin assistant

“I am not entirely in agreement with everything Macron has done, but in any case, I will not vote for Le Pen.  Macron is a positive image for France.  He is intelligent. He speaks English.  He has been good for foreign trade, but not for internal trade.”

Christophe, physical therapist, osteopath.

“I was against Le Pen and the extreme right for many years.  I am among those who think politics is under the control of world power… Macron was elected with the assistance of banks and powerful people… He thinks of Europe, not France.  I think many people will vote for Le Pen even if they don’t like her.  They want to block Macron. “

Christophe is an anti-vaxxer. Macron imposed strict vaccination controls, requiring medical personnel to be vaccinated to continue to work. Many refused and lost their jobs.  “Le Pen is against the vaccinations,” he said.  “She will assure that those who lost their jobs are rehired and repaid for their lost salary.”

 “I will vote for Le Pen.  I want to breathe.  I want change… Le Pen is not as bad as Macron… If we had another choice, I would vote for someone else.  We have a choice between la peste et le cholera (the plague and cholera).

Christine, retired teacher

“I will vote for Macron.  I am not against all he has done.  I agree with his program for Europe… He has not done badly for the economy.  During the pandemic he gave money to businesses and workers.  Inflation is 4 % in France, but 8% in Germany and 10% in Spain…. Le Pen is a racist.  She wants to withdraw from NATO.  She is against Europe.  She is an ally of Putin…. She wants to change the constitution…” Christine likens Le Pen to Viktor Orban, the anti-European nationalist prime minister of Hungary. 

Evelyne, retired veterinarian

“I will vote for Le Pen. I would like to see a woman president.  I cannot support Macon because of his vaccination policies.”

Arnaud, pharmacist

“It’s very close, but I will probably vote for Macron. Le Pen is too dangerous”

Veronique, caregiver for the elderly

She will vote blanc. In France voters are given an envelope at the polling stations. There is a table with separate stacks of the names of the candidates, each on a separate paper. And, one stack with blank papers.  Voters take a paper with the name of their candidate, or a blank piece of paper, go into a voting booth, and insert the paper naming their choice into the envelope which is then deposited into a transparent plastic box.

Depositing the envelope in the plastic box.

After casting their vote, they sign a register to confirm that they have voted. Several officials oversee the process. This is distinct from abstention. A blank vote shows the citizen has an interest in participating in the process, but refuses to make a choice.

“I suffered too much because I was not vaccinated. I lost my job.”  Veronique said.  However, she calls herself a “woman of the left,” She could not vote for Le Pen, hence she votes blanc.

The results of my poll give three votes to Macron, four to Le Pen, and 1 blank. If you add my vote for Macron, he gets four. A tie. Fortunately he is ahead in national polls, yet a Le Pen win is not impossible. Polls are not infallible.

The televised debate between Macron and Le Pen on April 20 could help Macron, who is known to be a skillful debater. He took Le Pen, who was poorly prepared, to the cleaners in the 2017 presidential debate. However, she learned her lesson and will be prepared this time

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