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French go to polls as Macron faces Le Pen for presidency

Voters in France are going to the polls to elect either Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen as president, with opinion polls suggesting that Macron will repeat his 2017 win over his far-right rival, albeit by a narrower margin.

A second five-year term for Macron, a champion of the EU, would come as a relief for most of France’s European and international partners and investors as they grapple with the economic and humanitarian impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Victory for the Eurosceptic Le Pen, on the other hand, would be a political earthquake akin to the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump in the US, given her former ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and her manifesto pledge to pull France out of Nato’s military command structure.

The Financial Times’s opinion poll tracker suggests that Macron’s lead has more than doubled from the first round two weeks ago, giving him a projected 54.6 per cent of the vote compared with 45.4 for Le Pen. In 2017, he won by 66 per cent to 34 per cent.

Both candidates are seeking to win over nearly 8mn voters who backed the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, and to persuade disillusioned abstainers to show up at the polling stations.

At 5pm local time on Sunday, the interior ministry said 63.2 per cent of registered voters had cast their ballots, more than two percentage points below the level at the same time in the previous Macron-Le Pen run-off five years ago.

In the first round involving 12 candidates, Macron came first with 28 per cent of the vote, followed by Le Pen with 23 and Mélenchon with 22. To govern effectively, the winner of the second round will need the support of a majority in the National Assembly, for which elections will be held in June.

Le Pen has mounted a strong challenge to Macron over the past year, making dozens of campaign trips to towns and villages across France. Her campaign has focused more on poverty and price rises triggered by the Ukraine war than on her party’s traditional concerns about immigration and crime.

On Friday, the last day of campaigning, Le Pen homed in on one of Macron’s most unpopular manifesto pledges, his plan to extend the retirement age from 62 to 65 to keep the country’s costly pension system afloat and bring it into line with other rich economies where people are living longer.

“With Emmanuel Macron, the French will end up working for ever,” she said mockingly while visiting a market in Étaples in northern France.

At her last big meeting in Arras on Thursday night, she said voters had a choice between Macron’s deregulated and “globalist” approach and her fraternal “national” vision in which a caring state would protect people all their lives. “In the end the question is quite simple: do you want Macron or do you want France?”

Macron, who was judged by commentators to have outclassed Le Pen on Wednesday in their only televised debate, also framed the election as a choice between two opposing world views.

At his last meeting in Figeac in south-west France, Macron ended his speech in the town square by declaring the election to be a referendum for or against Europe; for or against a united, secular French republic; for or against a strong economy; and for or against respect for the country’s values and history.

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