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French election: Macron in pole position, Le Pen is racing hard

PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron is at the forefront of winning Sunday’s re-election in the country’s second presidential election, but his lead over far-right rival Marine Le Pen depends on one big uncertainty: voters who could decide stay at home.

Macron’s victory in this vote – which could have far-reaching consequences for the future direction of Europe and the West’s efforts to stop 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 have led to the victory of the 44-year-old pro-European centrist – yet the difference from his 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.

The French overseas territories allowed voters on Saturday to start voting in polling stations ranging from the Caribbean coast in the Antilles to the savannas of French Guiana on the South American coast.

Back on the French mainland, workers set up a podium under the Eiffel Tower on Saturday, where Macron is expected to give his post-election speech, whether he wins or loses.

The first round in France on April 10 eliminated 10 more presidential candidates, and who will become the country’s next leader – Macron or Le Pen – will largely depend on what supporters of the defeated candidates will do on Sunday.

The question is difficult, especially for left-wing voters who do not like Macron but do not want to see Le Pen in power either. Macron has called on left-wing voters several times in recent days, hoping to secure their support.

“Think about what British citizens said a few hours before Brexit or (people) in the United States before Trump’s election: ‘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 for yourself!” called on hesitant French voters.

Both opponents were militant in the last days before Sunday’s election, clashing on Wednesday in a one-on-one television debate. No campaign is allowed over the weekend and voting is disabled.

Macron argued that the loan that Le Pen’s far-right party had received from a Czech-Russian bank in 2014 made it unsuitable for negotiations with Moscow during its invasion of Ukraine. He also said her plans to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would provoke a “civil war” in the country, which has 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 told France Inter on Friday.

In a winning speech in 2017, Macron promised that during his five-year term he would “do his best” so that the French “no longer have a reason to choose extremes.”

Five years later, this challenge was not met. Le Pen consolidated her place on the French political scene after changing her name to the less extreme.

This time, Le Pen’s campaign sought to reach voters facing rising food and energy prices amid the aftermath of the Russian war in Ukraine. The 53-year-old candidate said that reducing the cost of living would be a top priority if she was elected the first woman in France.

At her last rally in the northern city of Arras, she criticized Macron’s “calamity” presidency.

“I’m not even mentioning 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 science analyst Marc Lazar, head of the History Center at Sciences Po, said that even if Macron was re-elected, “there is a big problem,” he added. “A large number of people who are about to vote for Macron do not vote for this program, but because they reject Marine Le Pen.”

He said that meant Macron would face “a great deal of mistrust” in the country.

Macron pledged to change the French economy to be more independent while still protecting social benefits. He said he would also continue to work for a stronger Europe.

His first term was shaken by yellow vest protests against social injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In particular, it forced Macron to postpone a key pension reform, which he said would relaunch soon after re-election, in order to gradually raise the minimum retirement age in France from 62 to 65. He says this is the only way to ensure that pensioners receive benefits.

The French presidential election is also closely watched abroad.

In several European newspapers on Thursday, center-left leaders from Germany, Spain and Portugal urged French voters to elect him over to his nationalist rival. They pointed to “populists and the extreme right,” who see Putin as “an ideological and political model that replicates his chauvinistic ideas.”

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

In any case, Sunday’s winner will soon face another hurdle in governance in France: the June parliamentary elections will decide who controls the majority of seats in the French National Assembly.

The battles already promise to be fought hard.

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AP journalists Catherine Gaschka and Jeffrey Schaeffer contributed to this story.

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