PARIS (REUTERS) – France voted on Sunday (April 23) in the first round of a bitterly fought presidential election that is crucial to the future of Europe and a closely-watched test of voters’ anger with the political establishment.
Over 50,000 police backed by elite units of the French security services were on high alert, patrolling the streets less than three days after a gunman shot dead a policeman and wounded two others on the central Champs Elysees avenue.
Nearly 47 million voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public spending, a far-left euroskeptic admirer of Fidel Castro or to appoint France’s first woman president who would shut borders and ditch the euro.
Turnout figures showed a 28.54 percentage participation rate by midday local time, the Interior Ministry said on Sunday, slightly above the corresponding rate in the 2012 vote. The 28.54 per cent compared to 28.29 per cent in 2012 at the same hour, and compared to midday turnout rates of 31.21 per cent in 2007 and 21.40 per cent in 2002.
The outcome will be anxiously monitored around the world as a sign of whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election in the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.
Emmanuel Macron, 39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the opinion polls’ favourite to win the first round and beat far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen in the two-person run-off on May 7.
For them to win the top two qualifying positions on Sunday would represent a huge change in the political landscape, as the second round would feature neither of the mainstream parties that have governed France for decades.
“It wouldn’t be the classic left versus right divide but two views of the world clashing,” said Ifop pollsters’ Jerome Fourquet.
“Macron bills himself as the progressist versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists.”
But conservative Francois Fillon is making something of a comeback after being plagued for months by a fake jobs scandal, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon’s ratings have surged in recent weeks. Any two of the four is seen as having a chance to qualify for the run-off.
The seven other candidates, including the ruling Socialist party’s Benoit Hamon, two Trotskyists, three fringe nationalists and a former shepherd-turned-centrist lawmaker are lagging far behind in opinion polls.
“I have no idea who I’m going to vote for. It’s a disaster. I am going to go and vote but only because I have to,” said 60-year-old Pierrette Prevot in Paris.
Security has played an important part in national debate since Thursday’s killing of a policeman by a suspected Islamist in Paris, with some arguing it could increase Le Pen’s chances.
But previous militant attacks, such as the November 2015 killing of 130 people in Paris ahead of regional polls, did not appear to boost the votes of those espousing tougher national security policies.
Adding uncertainty to France’s most unpredictable election in decades, pollsters say they might not be able to give precise estimates of the outcome at 8pm (2am Singapore) as usual, because small and medium-sized polling stations will be open one hour longer than in past elections.
The possibility of a Le Pen-Melenchon run-off is not the most likely scenario but is one which alarms bankers and investors.
While Macron wants to further beef up the euro zone, Le Pen has told supporters “the EU will die”. She wants to return to the Franc, re-denominate the country’s debt stock, tax imports and reject international treaties.
Melenchon also wants to radically overhaul the European Union and hold a referendum on whether to leave the bloc.
Le Pen or Melenchon would struggle, in parliamentary elections in June, to win a majority to carry out such radical moves, but their growing popularity worries both investors and France’s EU partners.
“It is no secret that we will not be cheering madly should Sunday’s result produce a second round between Le Pen and Melenchon,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said, adding that the election posed a risk to the global economy. If either Macron or Fillon were victorious, each would face challenges.
For Macron, a big question would be whether he could win a majority in parliament in June. Fillon, though likely to struggle less to get a majority, would likely be dogged by an embezzlement scandal, in which he denies wrongdoing.