France Votes In Final Round Of Presidential Election

Voting is underway on Sunday in the final round of France’s presidential election in a contest pitting independent Emmanuel Macron against far-right populist Marine Le Pen.

Polls ahead of the vote showed around a 20 point lead for the centrist Macron, who hopes to build on his first-round victory and rally a wide range of French voters to oppose Le Pen. Millions in France are set to cast their votes, with polls closing in the evening local time and preliminary results coming in shortly after.

France’s election is a crucial moment for both the country and the European Union. Le Pen has promised to pursue a French exit from the EU, a move that would likely lead to the collapse of the trading bloc. Macron is running on a pro-EU platform, promising to reform the union and bring economic prosperity back to France.

The vote is being watched as the biggest test yet of how much support there is for France’s far-right, as across Europe similar right-wing populist figures have gained popularity vowing they will take power from a corrupt elite and return it to their narrowly defined version of “the people.” Many of these leaders, including Le Pen, have played on ethno-nationalist sentiment, declaring they would implement laws targeting immigrants and Muslims.    

The election has also seen a fracturing of France’s traditional party system. Either candidate will be the first president not to come from one of the country’s historically powerful establishment parties. France has been struggling with years of economic malaise, major terror attacks and questions of national identity ― all contributing to widespread antipathy towards the political establishment.

The road to Sunday’s vote was one of the most unconventional in modern French political history. The ruling Socialist Party is in shambles after the deeply unpopular presidency of Francois Hollande, while Republican party candidate François Fillon’s candidacy was crippled by scandal and corruption allegations. Fillon’s fall allowed the field to broaden and saw Macron, a former banker who launched his En Marche ! political party last year, become the frontrunner.

Macron took the election’s first round on April 23 with 24 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 21.3 percent. Following close behind in the 11-candidate vote were Fillon at 20 percent and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon at 19.6.

The final weeks of the campaign saw Le Pen attempting to downplay or moderate some of her policies in order to appeal to a wider range of voters and quell fears that her election would send financial markets into chaos. She announced following the first vote that she was stepping down from leadership of her National Front party ― a bid to temporarily distance herself from a political organization many in France associate with decades of anti-Semitism and racism under the leadership of Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie.  

Le Pen even wavered on her signature policy of holding a French referendum on EU membership after 6 months, saying a return to single currency could take longer if necessary. She floated the idea of a parallel French currency for daily purchases while keeping a common currency for major business deals, but provided no details on how that would work.

Le Pen also went on the offensive in the lead up to the final vote, attempting to paint Macron as no different from Hollande and “complacent” about Islamic fundamentalism. 

“His program seems to be very vague, but in reality it is a simple continuation of Francois Hollande’s government,” Le Pen said.

Macron, meanwhile, tried to remind voters of the extreme rhetoric and policies of Le Pen and the National Front. At a speech in Paris on Monday, he described Le Pen as a “candidate of hate” and called on voters to join together to cast their votes against her. Macron also laid flowers at a memorial for a man who was killed by skinheads during a demonstration in 1995, highlighting the history of violence associated with far-right ideologies.

During a heated televised debate on Wednesday, the two traded barbs and ridiculed each other’s plans for governing. Le Pen accused Macron of being a stooge of private interests and banks, while Macron claimed she was stirring up fear and spinning lies for political gain.

Macron derived his support in the first round from major cities, as well as areas with higher levels of education. But in the second round he is likely to gain supporters from a wider range of demographics and pick up voters who simply want to oppose a radical Le Pen presidency. Nearly all the other top contenders for the presidency have told their constituencies to back Macron, with the only major holdout Mélenchon.

Mélenchon’s party claimed on Tuesday that two-thirds of its supporters planned to abstain in the vote, rather than casting their ballots for Macron. If a large percentage of Mélenchon voters choose to abstain it could be a boost for Le Pen, who would benefit from apathy and low turnout from France’s left.

Le Pen is appealing to voters who see immigration and Islam as a threat to French identity, as well as parts of the working class and those who feel left out of the economic benefits of the EU. In the first round, Le Pen’s supporters included a large percentage of the young voters ― France’s youth are facing near 25 percent unemployment. Her strongholds are largely in the southeast and north of the country, which include rural and rust-belt regions.

Whichever candidate wins the election, they will be tasked with fixing France’s flagging economy and dealing with security fears resulting from years of terror attacks.

But the most immediate concern for the next president will likely be seeking an assembly majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections in June. The winner of Sunday’s vote will need to gain hundreds of seats in parliament, or they will have a very difficult time implementing the sprawling changes they’ve promised France.

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