France prepares for first round of Macron’s close re-election

Paris: France prepared for the first round of presidential elections on Saturday which is expected to produce a runoff between President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen that will be much closer than their duel five years ago .

All other political activity by candidates was banned on the last day before polling stations opened in mainland France at 0600 GMT on Sunday, after a campaign overshadowed by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

French overseas territories will start voting earlier to take into account the time difference, starting with Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon off Canada at 10:00 GMT on Saturday.

The territories of the Caribbean, the Pacific and finally the Indian Ocean will follow before the opening of the polling stations in mainland France.

Polls predict that Macron will edge Le Pen by a few percentage points in the first round, with the top two advancing to the second round on April 24.

But analysts warn the result remains highly volatile, with continued uncertainty over turnout and some observers fearing a quarter of the electorate will remain on the sidelines in a possible record boycott of the vote.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is hot on their heels in third place and is still imagining his chances of reaching the second round at the expense of Le Pen or even – in an extraordinary upheaval – Macron himself.

Despite her opponents accusing her of being an extremist bent on dividing society, Le Pen has sought with some success during the campaign to project a more moderate image and care about voters’ day-to-day worries such as rising prices. .

Macron, by contrast, campaigned relatively little, by his own admission, entering the campaign trail later than he would have liked due to the war in Ukraine.

A man walks past presidential campaign posters of French President Emmanuel Macron and centrist re-election candidate and far-right French candidate Marine Le Pen in Anglet, southwestern France, on Wednesday 8 April 2022.
Image credit: AP

“Strange Campaign”

If Macron and Le Pen, as expected, reach the second round, analysts predict their clash will be much closer than in 2017, when the current president beat his rival with 66% of the vote.

“There is uncertainty before the first round,” said French political scientist Pascal Perrineau, pointing to an unprecedented number of voters still undecided or having changed their minds during the campaign as well as absentee voters.

Analysts fear the 2002 record for the number of French voters boycotting a first round of 28.4% could be broken, with the 2017 absenteeism rate of 22.2% almost certainly surpassed.

“We experienced a strange campaign which was in contradiction with what we experienced during the last presidential elections,” Frédéric Dabi, director of the Ifop polling institute, told AFP.

The stakes in the election are high for Macron, who came to power at 39 as France’s youngest president with a promise to shake up the country.

He would be the first French president since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win a second term and thus cement a place in the country’s history.

If he wins, he would have a five-year mandate to push through his vision of reform which would include a crack in the reduction of the retirement age in defiance of the wrath of the unions.

He would also seek to consolidate his position as the undisputed number one in Europe after the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A victory for Le Pen, however, would be seen as a victory for right-wing populism and would send shockwaves through Europe and the markets.

“The Illusion of the Republican Front”

Candidates from France’s mainstream parties, the right-wing Republicans and left-wing Socialists, face a debacle on election night, continuing a shake-up in French politics that began when Macron took power.

The candidate of the Greens Yannick Jadot, Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans and the socialist candidate at half mast Anne Hidalgo seem certain to be ejected in the first round.

Former far-right TV pundit Eric Zemmour burst into the campaign last year but lost ground, and analysts say he helped Le Pen by making it appear more moderate.

Although the outcome of the first round is still subject to some uncertainty, attention is already turning to the second round and who will sustain the defeated hopes of the first round.

Analysts wonder if Macron would enjoy the same backing from a broad anti-far-right “Republican Front” coalition that helped him win in 2017 and enabled Jacques Chirac to tear down Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean- Mary in 2002.

“The Republican Front is not what it was for a while,” Jean-Jaures Foundation director Gilles Finchelstein told AFP, adding that it could be a source of votes for Macron in the second round. but that it would be an “illusion” to think that it was enough.

Mary I. Bruner