France decides

Supporters of Ms Marine Le Pen listening to her at an outdoor campaign rally in Ennemain, northern France, last Thursday. Ms Le Pen sees herself as the candidate of national unity. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Election's outcome could affect nation's place in Europe, and economic and immigration policies

Ms George Pau-Langevin, a parliamentarian and former junior education minister, is out on the stump, meeting voters on Rue des Pyrenees, a long road that runs from south-east to north-east Paris.

Ms Pau-Langevin is not campaigning for her preferred candidate in today's French presidential election; in fact, she is not even campaigning for her own party, but she says it is important to get out and vote nonetheless.

"I am a Socialist but I hope we will see people come together and vote for Macron," she said.

France is voting in the final round of an election that has deeply divided the nation. Voters face a stark choice: centrist Emmanuel Macron or far-right leader Marine Le Pen; and the outcome could affect France's place in Europe, the shape of its economy and policies on immigration.

Ms Le Pen sees herself as the candidate of national unity, though many in France see her as a divisive figure for her anti-Europe and anti-immigration stance.

 
 
  • THE TWO CANDIDATES' STARKLY DIFFERENT VISIONS FOR FRANCE

  • MR EMMANUEL MACRON

    PRO-IMMIGRATION

    Wants to make France more attractive to skilled immigrants by shortening the visa process, and to promote "talent" visas as well as help immigrants become more fluent in French.

    PRO-EUROPE

    Wants closer integration with the European Union on fiscal, trade and social legislation, and has called for a dedicated euro zone budget.

    PRO-GLOBALISATION:

    Wants to keep France open to globalisation, although he plans to fight "social dumping", in which companies move jobs to EU member countries where labour is cheaper.

    Plans to jump-start growth with a business-friendly labour and tax overhaul that would make it easier for firms to hire and fire workers.


    MS MARINE LE PEN

    ANTI-IMMIGRATION

    Wants to restore national border controls and pull France from Schengen, an agreement that allows citizens of European countries to move freely among signatory nations. Wants to cap immigration to 10,000 people a year, and refugees can apply for asylum only from outside France.

    ANTI-EUROPE

    Plans to hold a national referendum on taking France out of the EU. Also wants France to abandon the euro and bring back a national currency.

    ANTI-GLOBALISATION

    Calls for "intelligent protectionism" and backs nationalistic economic policies, such as favouring French businesses for public contracts.

    Wants to cut taxes for small businesses and put a 35 per cent tax on products made by French companies abroad, while raising taxes on foreign workers to try to ensure "priority hiring of French people".

    NYTIMES

Mr Macron, who leads the newly founded En Marche! (On the Move!) movement, has increased his lead, according to polls.

Ifop-Fiducial gives him 63 per cent to Ms Le Pen's 37 per cent.

Ms Le Pen is far from conceding, though. "My goal is to win this presidential election," she told RTL radio.

Her rise has been so thoroughshe may be justified in claiming victory even in defeat.

As it stands, France is a nation deeply split, with the country's east voting for Ms Le Pen in the first round of the election, while the west and capital went to Mr Macron.

This, in itself, is something of a revolution, with Ms Le Pen's National Front no longer confined to its heartlands in the south, having successfully wooed voters in France's northern "rust belt" of declining industrial towns with an anti-globalisation message which was previously the preserve of France's political left.

Researcher Antoine Jardin at Paris' Sciences Po university said that while a Le Pen victory is now unlikely, her rise from the fringes should not be understated.

"Marine Le Pen is still very high, polling around 35 per cent, even low 40s, right now. It's a 200 per cent increase in her vote over the last five years," he said.

"We are in a weird situation where her getting 38 per cent of the vote is a defeat."

She has also reached beyond the traditional National Front voter base by attracting the young - 40 per cent of National Front's nationwide support comes from voters aged between 18 and 24, attracted by her "anti-system" message.

Others are surprisingly positive, too. According to an unofficial poll conducted by dating app Hornet, despite her vow to abolish same-sex marriage, one in three gay voters will vote for the far-right candidate, driven largely by concerns about Islamist extremism.

Ms Le Pen has also courted Jewish voters, hoping to undo her party's reputation for anti-Semitism.

Ms Pau-Langevin hopes that voter abstention will not be an issue and wants her party to work with Mr Macron if he wins.

"This is a very strange election. I think the Socialist party must give a chance to Macron to have a programme," she said.

Ms Le Pen lost more ground after a bruising televised debate last Wednesday. Polls suggested about two-thirds of viewers felt Mr Macron's performance was the better of the two. Still, she has a large support base.

Her status has been buoyed in recent years following concern about France's stagnant economy and a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks.

However, political scientist Olivier Roy says the impact of terrorism has faded.

"The big attacks were Paris and Nice. The last attack, two weeks ago, was an incident. It made a big fuss in the media, but among the population, not so much," he said.

Mr Roy says that Ms Le Pen's campaigning has gone as far as it can go. "The elections are not about terrorism; it's one issue among others. The main issues are Europe, the economy and so on. Macron understands that very well, while Marine Le Pen doesn't," he told The Sunday Times.

Whatever the result, change is coming to a France whose identity has been battered by the modern world, and if Mr Macron defeats the insurgent Ms Le Pen he will do so only by having bypassed France's exhausted political elite, of which he is a former member.

Mr Gael Forlot, who is from Brittany in north-eastern France but has lived in Ireland for 20 years, watched the televised debate, but says it was almost unbearable.

"I tried to watch the debate, but she is like a contagious disease; her anger is contagious. She's a dangerous woman," he said, referring to Ms Le Pen.

Despite Mr Macron pitching himself as the candidate of hope, Mr Forlot echoed the sentiments of many: They will vote for Mr Macron, but only in order to stop Ms Le Pen.

"In the next round I will vote; I have to vote anti-National Front."

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'France decides'. Print Edition | Subscribe