France will vote in the first round of a presidential election on Sunday, with far-right contender Marine Le Pen posing an unexpected danger to President Emmanuel Macron‘s re-election prospects.
Until recently, opinion polls predicted an easy victory for pro-European Union centrist Macron, who was bolstered by his aggressive diplomacy in Ukraine, a robust economic recovery, and the weakness of a fractured opposition.
However, the president’s late entry into the campaign, with only one huge rally that even his fans considered unimpressive, and his focus on an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age have hurt his approval ratings, combined with a sharp jump in inflation.
In contrast, the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic far-right Le Pen has confidently toured France, all grins, her fans screaming “We will triumph! We will triumph! “.. She has benefited from a months-long focus on cost of living issues, as well as a significant reduction in support for her far-right competitor, Eric Zemmour.
Polls continue to show Macron leading the first round and winning a runoff versus Le Pen on April 24, but several polls now claim this is within the margin of error.
Voting begins at 8 am (0600 GMT) and ends at 1800 GMT, when the first exit polls are published. In France, such polls are usually quite reliable.
“We are ready, and the French are with us,” Le Pen told roaring fans at a rally on Thursday, asking them to vote for her so that she could administer “the fair punishment which those who have governed us so badly deserve.”
Macron, 44, who has been in president since 2017, has spent the final few days of campaigning emphasising that Le Pen’s platform has not altered despite efforts to soften her and her National Rally party’s image.
“Her fundamentals have not changed: it’s a racist programme that aims to divide society and is very brutal,” he told the French newspaper Le Parisien.
Le Pen denies any racism and claims that her programmes will help all French people, regardless of their backgrounds.
If Macron and Le Pen make it to the runoff, the president will face a problem: unlike in 2017, many left-wing supporters have informed pollsters that they will not vote for Macron in the runoff solely to keep Le Pen out of power.
Macron will have to persuade them to reconsider and vote for him in the second round.
Sunday’s vote will reveal who the unusually large number of late undecided voters will choose, as well as whether Le Pen, 53, can outperform opinion poll projections and win the first round.
“Marine Le Pen has never been this close to winning a presidential election,” Harris Interactive pollster Jean-Daniel Levy said of Le Pen’s third bid for the Elysee Palace.
Supporters of hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is now polling third, are hoping for another type of surprise and have urged left-wing supporters of all shades to convert to their candidate and push him to the runoff.
Macron and Le Pen both acknowledge that the outcome is uncertain.
“Everything is possible,” Le Pen addressed supporters on Thursday, while Macron advised supporters earlier in the week not to dismiss a Le Pen victory.
“Look at what happened with Brexit, and so many other elections: what looked improbable actually happened,” he said.