PARIS — France began voting in a presidential runoff election Sunday with repercussions for Europe’s future, with centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron the front-runner but fighting a tough challenge from far-right rival Marine Le Pen.
The 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 Macron victory in this vote would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.
The result of voting in France, a nuclear-armed nation with one of the world’s biggest economies, could also impact the conflict in Ukraine, as France has played a key role in diplomatic efforts and support for sanctions against Russia.
Le Pen’s support in France’s electorate has grown during this campaign to her highest level ever, and much will depend Sunday on how many people turn out to vote. Many of those expected to choose Macron are doing so to keep out Le Pen and ideas seen as too extreme and anti-democratic, such as her plan to ban the Muslim headscarf in public, or her ties to Russia.
Both candidates are trying to court the 7.7 million votes of a leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, defeated in the first vote.
For many who voted for left-wing candidates in the first round April 10, this runoff vote presents a unpalatable choice between a nationalist in Le Pen, and a president who some feel has veered to the right during his first term. The outcome could depend on how left-wing voters make up their minds: between backing Macron or abstaining and leaving him to fend for himself against Le Pen.
All opinion polls in recent days converge toward a win for the 44-year-old pro-European centrist — yet the margin over his 53-year-old nationalist rival varies broadly, from 6 to 15 percentage points, depending on the poll. Polls also forecast a possibly record-high number of people who will either cast a blank vote or not vote at all.
Earlier this week, Macron took the gloves in a two-hour-45-minute debate — the last of the campaign — tearing into his far-right challenger as he seeks the votes he needs to win.
Le Pen has sought to appeal to working class voters struggling with surging prices amid the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine, an approach that even Macron acknowledged has found resonance in the wider public. She said bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected as France’s first woman president, and she portrayed herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She says that Macron’s presidency has left the country deeply divided. She has repeatedly referenced the so-called yellow vest protest movement that rocked his government before the Covid-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies that some thought hurt the poorest.
France’s presidential campaign has been especially challenging for voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities. Polling suggests that much of France’s Muslim population — the largest in Western Europe — voted for far left candidates in the first round, so their voice could be decisive.
Macron has also touted his environmental and climate accomplishments in a bid to draw in young voters popular with far left candidates. Citizens and especially millennials voted in droves for Melenchon. Many young voters are particularly engaged with climate issues.
Although Macron was associated with the slogan “Make The Planet Great Again,” in his first five-year term, he capitulated to angry yellow vest protesters by scrapping a tax hike on fuel prices. Macron has said his next prime minister would be placed in charge of environmental planning as France seeks to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Le Pen, once considered a climate-change skeptic, wants to scrap subsidies for renewable energies. She vowed to dismantle wind farms and invest in nuclear and hydro energy.