French voters are heading to the polls for the second time in two weeks to conclude a presidential election in which incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron has the advantage in surveys over nationalist Marine Le Pen.
The candidates’ plans are diametrically opposed. At home, Macron, is sticking to his credo of pro-business overhauls — including an increase in the retirement age — to foster more work and make the economy more competitive. Le Pen wants the French to retire even earlier than the current minimum of 62 and promises steep cuts to sales and income taxes to help households.
For the European Union, Macron is holding his trademark line on strengthening European sovereignty with projects that could include more joint-investment. While Le Pen no longer wants to exit the EU, her proposals to transform it into a looser alliance of nations and hold a referendum to assert the primacy of French law over its rules would undermine the bloc from within.
The showdown is a repeat of the 2017 election, when Macron beat Le Pen with a hefty margin of almost 33 percentage points. This time, the last polls published before Saturday’s campaigning blackout showed the gap at about 11 points.
After the first round on April 10, markets were spooked when the gap in polls between the candidates was as slim as two percentage points. But Macron gradually pulled further ahead as Le Pen failed to capitalize on gains she’d made by centering her campaign on how to solve a looming cost-of-living crisis.
The French president voted around midday alongside his wife Brigitte Macron in the northern coastal town of Le Touquet, where they have a second home. Le Pen voted in Henin-Beaumont, a stronghold for her party that she represents as lawmaker, 75 miles inland from where Macron cast his ballot.
The candidates plan events in Paris in the evening, although at different locations with different symbolism. Le Pen is in the Bois de Boulogne park on the western outskirts of Paris. Macron intends to speak to supporters on the Champ de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
At midday French time, 26.41% of the electorate had voted, according to figures from the interior ministry. That’s lower than at the two previous elections in 2017 and 2012 when the participation rate at the same time was 28.23% and 30.66% respectively. But it’s slightly higher than the level seen in the first round two weeks ago, when 25.48% had voted by 12 p.m.
Daughter of five-times far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine had an opportunity to close the gap during nearly three hours of live debate with Macron on Wednesday. Yet she struggled to do so, while Macron turned the spotlight on policies that echo her father’s more extremist views, such as banning the Muslim veil in all public spaces.
On the final day of campaigning Friday, Le Pen told voters in northern France that Macron was trying to “brutalize” her during the debate and that “the disdain” he showed her was reflective of how he sees the French.
At the other end of the county in the southern town of Figeac, Macron called on his supporters to convince as many people as possible to rally round him, an attempt to activate the “Republican front” — a term for cross-party opposition that has prevented the far-right from taking power. He insisted his victory isn’t a done deal.
“It’s a referendum on the future of France,” Macron told BFMTV. “I am working until midnight and then I will be in a state of humility and reflection.”
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