French elections: President Macron in pole position, Le Pen in full swing

French President Emmanuel Macron is in pole position to be re-elected on Sunday in the country’s presidential run-off, but his lead over his far-right rival Marine Le Pen hinges on one major uncertainty: voters who could decide to stay at home.

A victory for Macron in that vote, which could have profound implications for the future direction of Europe and Western efforts to end the war in Ukraine, would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.

All opinion polls in recent days point to a victory for the 44-year-old pro-European centrist, but the margin over his nationalist rival varies widely, from 6 to 15 percentage points, depending on the polls.

Polls are also predicting a possibly record number of people who will vote blank or not vote at all.

France’s overseas territories allowed voters to begin voting on Saturday at polling stations ranging from the Caribbean coast of the West Indies to the savannahs of French Guiana on the South American coast.

Back in mainland France, workers assembled a stage under the Eiffel Tower on Saturday where Macron is expected to deliver his post-election speech, win or lose.

The first-round vote in France on April 10 eliminated 10 other presidential candidates, and who becomes the country’s next leader, Macron or Le Pen, will largely depend on what the losing candidates’ supporters do on Sunday.

The question is a difficult one, especially for left-leaning voters who don’t like Macron but also don’t want to see Le Pen in power.

Macron has made several appeals to left-leaning voters in recent days in the hope of enlisting their support.

“Think of what British citizens were saying a few hours before Brexit or (people) in the United States before Trump was elected: I’m not going, what’s the point?” I can tell you that they regretted it the next day, Macron warned this week on France 5.

So if you want to avoid the unthinkable… choose yourself! he urged wavering French voters.

The two rivals have been combative in the final days before Sunday’s election, facing off in a head-to-head televised debate on Wednesday. No campaigning is allowed during the weekend and polls are prohibited.

Macron argued that the loan Le Pen’s far-right party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank made it unfit to deal with Moscow amid its invasion of Ukraine.

He also said his plan to ban Muslim women in France from wearing the headscarf in public would spark a civil war in the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

When someone explains to you that Islam equals Islamism equals terrorism equals a problem, it is clearly called the far right, Macron said Friday on France Inter.

In his victory speech in 2017, Macron promised to do everything during his five-year term so that the French would no longer have any reason to vote for the extremes.

Five years later, this challenge has not been met. Le Pen cemented her place on the French political scene after rebranding herself as less extreme.

Le Pen’s campaign this time sought to appeal to voters struggling with soaring food and energy prices amid the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The 53-year-old candidate said reducing the cost of living would be a top priority if elected France’s first female president.

She slammed Macron’s calamitous presidency at her last rally in the northern city of Arras.

I’m not even talking about immigration or security for which, I believe, every Frenchman can only see the failure of Macron’s policy… his economic record is also catastrophic, she said.

Political analyst Marc Lazar, head of Sciences Po’s History Center, said that even if Macron were re-elected, “there is a big problem”, he added.

A large part of the people who will vote for Macron, they do not vote for this program, but because they reject Marine Le Pen.

He said this means Macron will face a high level of distrust in the country.

Macron has pledged to change the French economy to make it more independent while protecting social benefits. He said he would also continue to push for a stronger Europe.

His first term was rocked by protests by yellow vests against social injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. This notably forced Macron to delay a key pension reform, which he said he would relaunch soon after his re-election, to gradually raise the minimum retirement age in France from 62 to 65. He says it’s the only way to maintain retiree benefits.

The French presidential election is also closely followed abroad.

In several European newspapers on Thursday, center-left leaders in Germany, Spain and Portugal urged French voters to choose him over his nationalist rival.

They warned against populists and the far right who see Putin as an ideological and political role model, reproducing his chauvinistic ideas.

A victory for Le Pen would be a traumatic moment, not only for France, but for the European Union and for international relations, especially with the United States,” Lazar said, noting that Le Pen “wants a distant relationship between France and the United States.

Either way, Sunday’s winner will soon face another hurdle in governing France: a legislative election in June will decide who controls the majority of seats in France’s National Assembly.

Already, the fighting looks tough.

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