French election run-off underway in Le Pen-Macron showdown

Voters queue to cast their ballot at a polling station in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, on April 24, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Voters take ballots from a table at a polling station in Lyon, France, on April 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Voters prepare to vote at a polling station in Paris on April 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP, REUTERS) - The French voted on Sunday (April 24) in an election that will decide whether pro-European Union, centrist President Emmanuel Macron keeps his job or is unseated by far-right eurosceptic Marine Le Pen in what would amount to a political earthquake.

Opinion polls in recent days gave Mr Macron a solid and slightly growing lead as analysts said Ms Le Pen – despite her efforts to soften her image and tone down some of her National Rally party’s policies – remained unpalatable for many.

But a surprise Le Pen victory could not be ruled out.

With polls showing neither candidate able to count on enough core supporters to win, much will depend on those still weighing up anxiety about the implications of a far-right presidency against anger at Mr Macron’s record since his 2017 election.

A Le Pen victory would mark a political upheaval for Western democracies on a par with Brexit or the US election of Donald Trump in 2016, ending decades of rule by mainstream French leaders and the latest threat to the future of the European Union.

Turnout figures showed a 63.23 per cent participation rate by 5pm (11pm Singapore time), the interior ministry said, below the 65.30 per cent recorded at the same time in the 2017 election.

The figures confirmed a trend forecast by polling institutes who said this year’s final vote would see the highest abstention level in over 50 years.  

Voting started at 8am and will end at 8pm, when first projections of results are expected. 

Voters in French overseas territories that span the globe and are home to almost three million people had already started voting.

The first vote in the election was cast by a 90-year-old man in the tiny island territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the northern coast of Canada.

Polls subsequently opened in France's islands in the Caribbean and the South American territory of French Guiana and voting later starts in territories in the Pacific and then in the Indian Ocean before it gets underway on the mainland.

Some 48.7 million French are eligible to vote.

Final campaign flurry

A Le Pen victory would send shockwaves across Europe. Left-leaning EU leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have pleaded with France to choose Mr Macron over his rival.

The stakes are huge - Ms Le Pen would become modern France's first far-right leader and first female president. Mr Macron would be the first French president to win re-election in two decades.

If elected, Mr Macron is expected to address supporters on the Champ de Mars in central Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen threw themselves into a final flurry of campaigning on Friday, firing off attacks in interviews before last-minute walkabouts and rallies.

Ms Le Pen insisted that opinion polls giving Mr Macron the lead would be proved wrong and took aim at her rival's plan to push back the retirement age to 65 from 62.

Mr Macron for his part said Ms Le Pen was trying to mask an authoritarian "extreme right" platform that stigmatises Muslims with a plan to outlaw headscarves in public.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets with supporters after a campaign rally in Figeac, France, on April 22, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

But the campaign also had some lighter moments. Macron's quizzical stares during the TV debate and a daringly unbuttoned shirt during a campaigning break that provided a glimpse of his strikingly hairy chest became instant Internet memes.

Polls have shown Mr Macron with a lead of some 10 percentage points. The highly anticipated TV debate on Wednesday did not change the trend and, if anything, allowed Mr Macron to open more of a gap.

But the result is predicted to be closer than in 2017, when the same candidates faced off and Mr Macron carried the day with 66 per cent to 34 per cent.

Turnout 'real risk'

Analysts say abstention rates could reach 26 to 28 per cent, with reluctant left-wingers needing to back the President for him to be sure of victory, although the 1969 record for a second-round abstention rate of 31.1 per cent is not expected to be beaten.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who scored a close third-place finish in the first-round vote on April 10, has pointedly refused to urge his millions of followers to back Mr Macron while insisting they must not cast a single vote for Ms Le Pen.

Ms Marine Le Pen greets people at the end of a campaign rally in Arras, France, on April 21, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

According to Professor Martial Foucault, director of the Cevipof political studies centre, the greater the abstention rate, the more the gap will narrow between Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, describing this as a "real risk" for the President.

Early turnout indications will be closely watched from the overseas territories, where average incomes are lower than in mainland France and which generally backed Mr Melenchon in the first round.

For Ms Sandy Doro, an 18-year-old student at a polling station in French Guiana's capital Cayenne, voting "is an essential right that must be exercised".

Mr Lyvio Francius, a student of the same age, was also voting for the first time but with less enthusiasm: "It was my mother who persuaded me and took me, otherwise I'm not interested, not really."

French nationals were also voting in the United States.

But even before the results are in, eyes are already turning towards the legislative elections which will in June follow hot on the heels of the presidential elections.

Mr Melenchon has already indicated he is eyeing a strong performance and the job of prime minister in what would be an uneasy "cohabitation" with either of the presidential candidates.

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