France began voting in a run-off presidential election on Sunday with repercussions for the future of Europe, with centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron the frontrunner but battling a tough challenge from his far-right rival Marine Le Pen.
Centrist Macron is asking voters to trust him for a second five-year term despite a presidency troubled by protests, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. A victory for Macron in this vote would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.
The outcome of the vote in France, a nuclear-armed country with one of the largest economies in the world, could also have an impact on the conflict in Ukraine, as France has played a key role in diplomatic efforts and the support for sanctions against Russia.
Support for Le Pen in the French electorate has grown during this campaign to its highest level ever, and much will depend on how many people turn out to vote on Sunday. Many who should choose Macron do so to dismiss Le Pen and ideas considered too extreme and anti-democratic, such as his plan to ban the Muslim headscarf in public, or his ties to Russia.
Left-wing voters a joker
The two candidates are trying to court the 7.7 million votes of left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, defeated in the first round.
For many who voted for left-wing candidates in the first round on April 10, this runoff presents an unpleasant choice between a nationalist in Le Pen and a president who some say veered right in his first term. . The outcome could depend on the decision of leftist voters: between backing Macron or abstaining and letting him fend for himself against Le Pen.
All opinion polls in recent days point to a victory for the pro-European centrist, 44 – but the margin over his 53-year-old nationalist rival varies widely, from 6 to 15 percentage points, according to the poll. Polls are also predicting a possibly record number of people who will vote blank or not vote at all.
Earlier this week, Macron took the gloves off during a two-hour, 45-minute debate – the last of the campaign – tearing at his far-right opponent as he seeks the votes he needs to win.
Le Pen has sought to appeal to working-class voters struggling with soaring prices amid the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine – an approach that even Macron has acknowledged resonating with the general public. She said lowering the cost of living would be her top priority if elected France’s first female president, and she ran as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She says Macron’s presidency has left the country deeply divided. She repeatedly referenced the so-called yellow vest protest movement that rocked her government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent protests against her economic policies that some said were hurting the poorest.
Many Muslims voted for the far left
The French presidential campaign was particularly difficult for voters with an immigrant background and religious minorities. Polls suggest much of France’s Muslim population – the largest in Western Europe – voted for far-left candidates in the first round, so their vote could be decisive.
Macron has also touted his environmental and climate achievements in a bid to lure popular young voters over far-left candidates. Citizens and especially millennials voted en masse for Mélenchon. Many young voters are particularly concerned about climate issues.
Although Macron has been associated with the slogan “Make The Planet Great Again”, during his first five-year term he capitulated to angry protesters in yellow vests by scrapping a tax hike on fuel prices. Macron has said his next prime minister will be in charge of environmental planning as France seeks to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Le Pen, once seen as a climate change skeptic, wants to scrap renewable energy subsidies. It has pledged to dismantle wind farms and invest in nuclear and hydropower.