France’s election: Emmanuel Macron meets Marine Le Pen in the French presidential runoff

Centrist Macron and Le Pen, a longtime flag-bearer of France’s far-right, were the top two candidates in Sunday’s first ballot, receiving 27.8% and 23.2% of the vote respectively, according to France’s Interior Ministry.

Twelve candidates ran for the top job. With neither of them receiving more than 50% of the votes in the first ballot, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff on April 24.

The first round of the 2022 contest was marked by voter apathy, with turnout estimated at 73.3% for French broadcasters TF1 and LCI, according to an analysis by pollster Ifop-Fiducial – the lowest in a first round in 20 years.

While Macron received more votes than any other candidate in the first round, he is a polarizing figure whose approval ratings have plummeted during his first term.

In a speech after the polling stations closed on Sunday, he called on citizens to vote in the second ballot.

“Nothing is decided and the debate we will have over the next 15 days is crucial for our country and our Europe,” he said. “I don’t want a France that, after leaving Europe, has international populists and xenophobia as its only allies. That’s not us. I want a France faithful to humanism and the spirit of the Enlightenment,” he said.

Macron is aiming to become the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002. Polls have given him a consistent lead over the rest of the field, but the race has tightened significantly over the past month.

An Ifop-Fiducial poll released on Sunday showed Macron would win a second-round contest against Le Pen by just 51% to 49%.

Le Pen’s support has steadily increased in recent weeks. Although best known for her far-right policies such as drastic restrictions on immigration and banning Muslim headscarves in public places, this time she has led a mainstream campaign, softening her language and focusing more on budget issues such as the rising cost of living, a major concern of the French electorate.

In her speech on Sunday, Le Pen vowed to be a president for “all French” if she wins the second round and urged those who didn’t vote for Macron to support her in the second round.

Leftist arsonist Jean-Luc Melenchon came third with 22% of the vote. He enjoyed a late surge in support and was seen as a possible dark side candidate to challenge Macron.

Experts say who Melenkhon’s voters back in the second round could decide the presidency. Melenchon told his supporters that “we must not give Ms Le Pen a single vote,” but did not explicitly endorse Macron.

No other candidate received more than 10% of the votes. Far-right political commentator-turned-presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who had a spot in the top three candidates according to Ifop polls through March, finished fourth 7.1%.

Sunday’s other candidates quickly began to fall behind the top two. While Zemmour urged his supporters to vote for Le Pen, the others urged their supporters to stay away from her.

The candidates from the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, have already backed Macron.

Socialist Anne Hidalgo said a Le Pen victory would instill “a hatred of all against all” in France, while Republican Valerie Pecresse said she was genuinely concerned for the country because “the extreme right has never been so close to victory was”.

“Marine Le Pen’s project will open France to discord, impotence and collapse,” Pecresse said.

A woman selects her ballots during the first round of voting in the French presidential election in Lyon, central France, on Sunday.

The rematch

Macron’s political rise has shook the playing field as his centrist political party has diverted supporters from the traditional centrist parties, the Socialists and Republicans. Both candidates were below 5% on Sunday.

Pre-race polls indicated that a second round by Macron versus Le Pen was the most likely outcome. Macron easily beat Le Pen five years ago, but pundits have said a second fight between the pair would be much closer than the 2017 race.

No longer a political upstart, Macron has had a mixed record. While his ambitious plan to increase the autonomy and geopolitical weight of the European Union has earned him respect abroad and at home, he remains a divisive figure on the domestic front. His handling of the Yellow Vests movement, one of France’s longest-running protests in decades, has been widely panned and his accounts of the Covid-19 pandemic are inconclusive.

Macron’s signature policy during the crisis – requiring people to show proof of vaccination in order to continue living normally – helped boost vaccination rates but fueled a vocal minority against his presidency.

France's President Emmanuel Macron (centre), alongside his wife Brigitte Macron (left), speaks to a resident before voting for the first round of the presidential election on Sunday.

Macron has campaigned very little so far. Experts believe his strategy was to avoid political mudslinging for as long as possible in order to polish his image as the presidential candidate of all candidates. Polls showed he consistently led all candidates, and he was considered a shoo-in to reach the second round.

“Widespread dissatisfaction with Macron (particularly among young people) means the outcome is uncertain and unpredictable. Le Pen will continue to exploit this and therefore a major political surprise remains possible,” said Dominic Thomas, commentator on CNN’s European affairs, of the second round match.

“As much as they may dislike Le Pen, there is a world of difference between her and Macron and how much she would disrupt European and global politics.”

Le Pen is the daughter of another famous far-right presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The elder Le Pen made it to the runoff against Jacques Chirac in 2002, but Marine Le Pen has managed to do better in the first round of the last two presidential elections as her father.

Le Pen has attempted to portray herself as a very different candidate from the one who lost to Macron in 2017 as she attempted to position herself before the forgotten French working classes as her country’s response to then-US President Donald Trump. While her economic nationalist stance, her views on immigration, her Euroscepticism and her positions on Islam remain unchanged in France, Le Pen has sought to broaden her appeal.

The contest was initially predicted to be a referendum on far-right dominance in French politics, but the war in Ukraine — another key issue for voters — has turned the race on its head.

Macron’s support peaked in early March, according to Ifop polls, when potential voters rallied around the flag and rewarded the president for his attempts, albeit a failure, to mediate the conflict in Ukraine ahead of the Russian invasion.

Many pundits also expected the war to hurt Le Pen, who had been a vocal admirer of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader who has become a pariah in the West over the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine in late February. Le Pen visited the Russian President during her 2017 election campaign; This time she was forced to scrap a leaflet with a photo of her and Putin from that trip after Russia’s unprovoked attack on its neighbor.

Thomas, CNN’s European affairs commentator, explained that the upcoming debates will be crucial if Macron is to convince voters that Le Pen’s past support for Putin should disqualify them.

“He will be vulnerable on a range of domestic issues, but she will struggle to convince the electorate of her foreign policy credentials, particularly given her longstanding ties to Russia,” he said.

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