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Macron and Le Pen prepare for French presidential run-off

Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with residents after a campaign rally in Figeac, south-western France (AP)
Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with residents after a campaign rally in Figeac, south-western France (AP)

Emmanuel Macron is in pole position to win re-election in France’s presidential runoff – but his lead over his far-right rival Marine Le Pen depends on how many voters decide to stay at home.

A victory in Sunday’s run-off vote would make Mr Macron the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.

All opinion polls in recent days point towards a victory for the 44-year-old pro-European centrist – yet the margin over his nationalist rival appears uncertain, varying from six to 15 percentage points, depending on the poll.

Macron and his supporters
Mr Macron takes a selfie with supporters after a campaign rally (AP)

Polls also forecast a possible record high number of people who either cast a blank vote or stay at home and do not vote at all in this second and final round.

The April 10 first-round vote eliminated 10 other presidential candidates. Who becomes France’s next leader will largely depend on how backers of those losing candidates switch their allegiances on Sunday.

The question is a difficult one, especially for leftist voters who dislike Mr Macron but do not want to see Mr Le Pen in power either.

A second term for Mr Macron relies in part on their mobilisation, prompting the French leader to issue multiple appeals to leftist voters in recent days.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen campaigns at a street market in Etaples, northern France (AP)

The president warned voters this week on France 5 television: “Think about what British citizens were saying a few hours before Brexit or (people) in the United States before Trump’s election happened: ‘I’m not going, what’s the point?’ I can tell you that they regretted it the next day.

“So if you want to avoid the unthinkable … choose for yourself.”

The two rivals both appeared combative in the final days before Sunday’s election, clashing in a one-on-one televised debate on Wednesday.

Mr Macron argued that the loan Ms Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank made her unsuitable to deal with Moscow amid its invasion of Ukraine.

He also said her plans to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would trigger “civil war” in the country that has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

Marine Le Pen defaced poster
A defaced electoral poster of French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (AP)

“When someone explains to you that Islam equals Islamism equals terrorism equals a problem, that is clearly called the far-right,” Mr Macron told France Inter radio.

In his victory speech in 2017, Mr Macron had promised to “do everything” during his five-year term so that the French “have no longer any reason to vote for the extremes”.

Five years later, that challenge has not been met. Ms Le Pen has consolidated her place on France’s political scene, the result of a years-long effort to rebrand herself as less extreme.

Her campaign this time has sought to appeal to voters struggling with surging food and energy prices amid the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The 53-year-old candidate said bringing down the cost of living would be a top priority if she was elected as France’s first woman president.

Marine Le Pen
A victory for Ms Le Pen could rock France’s system of governance, strike fear among its immigrants, jolt the dynamics of the EU and cause shivers in allies in Washington and beyond (AP)

She criticised Mr Macron’s “calamitous” presidency at a rally in the northern town of Arras.

“I’m not even mentioning immigration or security for which, I believe, every French person can only note the failure of Macron’s policies … his economic record is also catastrophic,” she declared.

Political analyst Marc Lazar, head of the history centre at Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies), told the AP he thinks that Mr Macron is going to win again, as Ms Le Pen “has this lack of credibility”.

But he added that if Mr Macron is re-elected, “there is a big problem”.

Defaced Macron poster
A ripped electoral poster of French President Emmanuel Macron (AP)

Mr Lazar said: “A great number of the people who are going to vote for Macron – they are not voting for this programme, but because they reject Marine Le Pen.”

He said that means Mr Macron will face a “big level of mistrust” in the country.

The French leader has vowed to change the French economy to make it more independent while protecting social benefits at the same time. He said he will also keep pushing for a more powerful Europe.

Mr Macron’s first term was rocked by the yellow vest protests against social injustice, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Emmanuel Macron and an EU flag
The election is being keenly watched across the world (AP)

It notably forced Mr Macron to delay a key pension reform, which he said he would relaunch soon after re-election, to gradually raise France’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 65. He says that is the only way to keep benefits flowing to retirees.

The French presidential election is being closely watched abroad.

In an opinion piece on Thursday in several European newspapers, the centre-left leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal urged French voters to choose him over his nationalist rival.

They raised a warning about “populists and the extreme right” who hold Russian leader Vladimir Putin “as an ideological and political model, replicating his chauvinist ideas”.

A Le Pen victory would be a “traumatic moment, not only for France, but for European Union and for international relationships, especially with the USA”, Mr Lazar said, noting that Ms Le Pen “wants a distant relationship between France and the USA”.

Sunday’s winner will quickly face a new challenge in the form of a legislative election in June, which will decide who controls a majority of seats in France’s National Assembly.

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