PARIS ( Associated Press) – From buzzing villages to humming towns, French voters on Sunday were choosing between two radically different President Emmanuel Macron has offered a centrist pro-European approach if re-elected, while far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is promising seismic change for France and its allies if she becomes the country’s first female leader. Huh.
It is all taking place amid the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has skyrocketed the prices of food, fuel and other essential goods in France, a European Union country that has seen heated protests in recent years over economic inequalities.
The biggest unknown was how voters supporting the 10 other presidential candidates eliminated in the first round would vote this time around – or even if they would vote. The second round is a winner-takes-all presidential runoff between two familiar rivals, who also faced each other in 2017.
Only three hours before the last polling station closed, turnout was 63% – two points less than the same time five years ago.
Many French voters have found the 2022 rematch less compelling than in 2017, when Macron was an unknown factor, having never held an elected office before. Left-wing voters – unable to identify with either the centrist president or Le Pen’s hardline nationalist platform – were upset with Sunday’s election. Some people reluctantly rushed to the polling stations to stop Le Pen and happily voted for Macron.
“It was at least the worst option,” said Stephanie David, a transportation logistics worker who supported a Communist candidate in the first round.
It was an impossible choice for the retired Jean-Pierre Roux. After voting for a Communist in the first round, he dropped an empty envelope in the ballot box on Sunday, rejecting both Le Pen’s politics and what Macron saw as arrogance.
“I’m not against his views, but I can’t stand that person,” Roux said.
In an effort to become France’s first president in 20 years to win re-election, the 44-year-old Macron went to the polls with a decent lead but was unable to guarantee victory from fragmented, anxious and exhausted voters. The war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic battered Macron’s first term, as did months of violent protests against his economic policies.
The turmoil prepared fertile ground for Le Pen, who is making her third attempt to become France’s first female president. Campaigning hard on issues of livelihood, he made deep inroads among blue-collar voters in disaffected rural communities and former industrial centres.
Even if the 53-year-old Le Pen President stays short of the Elysee Palais, a high score on Sunday would still be a victory of sorts for the far-right. In 2017, Macron beat Le Pen by 66% to 34%, but this time the result is expected to be closer.
So close that some voters were forced to halt their climb on Sunday.
Marion Arbre, who is voting in Paris, cast her vote for Macron “to avoid a government that finds itself with fascists, racists.”
“There’s a real risk there,” the 29-year-old frets.
As the only nuclear-armed power in the European Union, the outcome in France was being seen in a 27-nation bloc, which – along with Russia’s war in Ukraine – is battling its worst security crisis since World War II. . France has taken a leading role in international efforts to punish Russia with sanctions and is supplying weapons systems to Ukraine. Le Pen’s relations with Russia became an issue during the campaign, raising questions about how he would deal with the Kremlin if elected.
About 49 million voters are eligible to vote. Preliminary results are expected on Sunday night.
Le Pen voted in the northern city of Henin-Beaumont, a struggling former industrial region in France.
“I’m calm,” she said. “I trust the French.”
Macron cast his vote in the English Channel’s resort town of Le Touquet and cast his vote in the blink of an eye in front of cameras.
Appealing to working-class voters grappling with rising prices, Le Pen has vowed that reducing the cost of living will be his priority if elected. She argued that Macron’s presidency left the country deeply divided, pointing to the yellow vest protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Macron sought to appeal to voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities, especially because of Le Pen’s proposed policies targeting Muslims and putting French citizens first for jobs and benefits.
Macron also touted his environmental and climate achievements to young voters who supported leftist candidates in the first round but were often ill-advised, at best, about runoff match-ups. Macron said his next prime minister would be put in charge of environmental planning as France seeks to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Le Pen, once considered a climate change skeptic, wants to end subsidies for renewable energy. He has vowed to dismantle wind farms and invest in nuclear and hydroelectric power.
Associated Press journalists Thomas Adamson and Elaine Gunley in Paris, Michele Spingler in Henin-Beaumont and Alex Turnbull at Le Touquet contributed.
Follow Associated Press’s coverage of the French election https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022