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France is voting in a tense second round of presidential elections

France began voting in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday with implications for Europe’s future, with centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron being the leading candidate but battling a tough challenge from far-right rival Marine Le Pen.

Centrist Macron is asking voters to trust him for a second five-year term, despite a presidency plagued by protests, pandemics and the war in Ukraine. Macron’s victory in this vote would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.

The outcome of the vote in France, a nuclear-armed country with one of the world’s largest economies, could also affect the conflict in Ukraine, as France has played a key role in diplomatic efforts and support for sanctions against Russia.

The farmer is standing at the Salies de Bearn market in southwestern France in front of posters of the French presidential campaign Emmanuel Macron and the French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. (AP)

Le Pen’s support for French voters has risen during this campaign to its highest level in history, and much will depend on Sunday on how many people come to the polls. Many who are expected to elect Macron do so to prevent Le Pen and ideas considered too extreme and anti-democratic, such as her plan to ban the Muslim headscarf or its ties to Russia.

Both candidates are seeking 7.7 million votes from left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, defeated in the first ballot.

For many people who voted left-wing candidates in the first round on April 10, this second round is an unpleasant choice between the nationalist Le Pen and the president, whom some believe he turned right during his first term.

The outcome could depend on how left-wing voters decide: between supporting Macron or abstaining and leaving him to take care of Le Pen himself.

All opinion polls in recent days have led to the victory of the 44-year-old pro-European centrist – yet the difference from his 53-year-old nationalist rival varies considerably, from 6 to 15 percentage points, depending on the poll. Surveys also predict perhaps a record high number of people who either cast an empty vote or do not vote at all.

Centrist candidate and French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron are walking along the beach in Le Touquet in northern France. (AP)

Earlier this week, Macron took off his gloves in a two-hour and 45-minute debate – the last of the campaign – and pulled himself into his far-right challenger as he sought the votes he needed to win.

Le Pen sought to reach working-class voters facing rising prices amid the effects of the Russian war in Ukraine – an approach that Macron acknowledged has been well received by the general public.

She said that reducing the cost of living would be her priority if she was elected the first president of France, and she portrayed herself as a candidate for voters who cannot make ends meet.

He claims that Macron’s presidency has left the country deeply divided. She repeatedly referred to the so-called Yellow Vest protest movement, which shook his government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policy, which some thought hurt the poorest.

The French presidential campaign was particularly challenging for immigrant voters and religious minorities. The poll suggests that a large part of the French Muslim population – the largest in Western Europe – voted for far-left candidates in the first round, so their vote could be decisive.

Macron also praised its environmental and climate achievements in an effort to attract young voters popular with far-left candidates.

Citizens, and especially the millennials, voted in droves for Melenchon. Many young voters are mainly concerned with climate issues.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen made a name for her in the first round of the French presidential election. (AP)

Although Macron was associated with the slogan “Make The Planet Great Again” in its first five-year term, it surrendered to angry yellow vest protesters by lifting fuel tax increases.

Macron said his next prime minister would be in charge of environmental planning as France sought to become carbon neutral by 2050.

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Le Pen, once considered a skeptic of climate change, wants to abolish renewable energy subsidies. She promised to liquidate wind farms and invest in nuclear and hydropower.