French voters went to the polls on Sunday for the presidential election between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his challenger Marine Le Pen, whose far-right party appears to be having its strongest election show ever.
Macron entered the election with a steady lead in opinion polls, an advantage he consolidated in the hectic final days of the campaign, including an outright performance in the pre-election debate.
But analysts have warned that Macron, who came to power in 2017 at the age of 39 as the country’s youngest modern leader, cannot take anything for granted given predictions of low turnout that could affect the outcome either way.
The second round is a repeat of the clash between Le Pen and Macron in 2017, when the centrist won 66 percent of the vote. But margins are considered much narrower this time around, with polls predicting a victory for Macron by about 10 percentage points.
In the afternoon, voter participation was 26.4 percent, nearly two percentage points lower than at the same time five years ago, when Macron handily defeated Le Pen in their first showdown.
But turnout was higher than the 25.5 percent seen at noon in the first round of voting on April 10, the interior ministry said, which will publish its next update on voter participation at 5:00 p.m. (1500 GMT). .
“Sometimes this campaign didn’t generate enough discussion, but still I was able to make a decision,” said Cedric Kuster, a 35-year-old voter in Strasbourg, eastern France.
Le Pen beamed as she greeted supporters before casting her vote in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a stronghold of her National Rally party.
Macron, meanwhile, worked for a crowd of several hundred before voting with his wife Brigitte in the Channel seaside town of Le Touquet, where they have a holiday home.
Polling stations close at 8pm (1800 GMT), when preliminary results are released that usually predict the final result with a high degree of accuracy.
Macron, in particular, hopes left-wing voters who supported other first-round candidates will support the former investment banker and his pro-business, reformist agenda to stop Le Pen and her populist program.
But far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who took a close third in the first round, has emphatically refused to urge his millions of followers to support Macron, while insisting they should not vote for Le Pen.
Macron himself has repeatedly made it clear that the complacency of the stay-at-home crowd caused the shocks of the 2016 election that led to Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Analysts have predicted that the abstinence rate could reach 26 to 28 percent, although the 1969 record of a second-round abstinence rate of 31.1 percent is not expected to be beaten.
Another factor is that elections are held in the middle of the Easter holidays in much of France.
Martial Foucault, director of the CEVIPOF Center for Political Studies, said a high abstinence rate will narrow the gap between Macron and Le Pen, describing it as a “real risk” to the president.
The stakes are huge for both France and Europe, with Macron promising reforms and closer EU integration, while Le Pen, who would become France’s first female president, insists the bloc must be modified in what opponents are describing as “Frexit” under a different name.
Macron has also opposed Le Pen’s plan to make it illegal to wear a Muslim headscarf in public, though her team has backtracked on the proposal before the vote, saying it was no longer a “priority”.
They have also clashed with Russia, with Macron trying to portray Le Pen as unable to tackle the invasion of Ukraine over a loan her party had received from a Russian-Czech bank.
Macron would be the first French president to win reelection in two decades since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
If elected, he will be expected to address supporters on the Champ de Mars in central Paris, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
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