Macron, 44, pitches voters on an innovative, globalized France at the head of a muscular EU. Le Pen, 53, has put forward an economically nationalistic, more introverted platform that would represent a fundamental shift from the direction France has taken since the end of World War II.
Analysts expect a much tighter run this time around.
The competition was expected to be an effective referendum on the rise of France’s political extremes before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, leading to a shift in national discourse.
Macron’s attempt at diplomacy took him off the campaign track, while Le Pen was forced to withdraw on her former support for Vladimir Putin. Le Pen had long been a vociferous admirer of the Russian president and even visited him during her campaign in 2017, and her party took out a loan from a Czech-Russian bank several years ago.
She has since condemned Moscow’s decision to invade and defended the loan, explaining that her party was forced to seek financing abroad because no French bank would approve the request.
Despite his previous support for Putin, Le Pen has put herself in a strong position to win by focusing on wallet issues, and moving away from the typical right-wing extremist platform focusing on immigration, security and identity that dominated her campaign in 2017. However, she has not given up some of her most controversial policies, such as banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public.
Critics say, however, that Le Pen’s campaign has not sufficiently explained how Paris will pay for many of the proposed solutions. They also question whether they all comply with French and EU law.
And while Le Pen has abandoned some of her more controversial policies, such as leaving the EU and abandoning the euro, experts say many of her proposals will still bring France on a collision course with the EU.
Macron, meanwhile, is no longer the popular new boy on the block. The former investment banker and finance minister must defend a mixed political record while convincing voters that his platform of major investment in industry and combating the climate crisis will not just mean more of the same.
During his first term, Macron’s ambitious plan to strengthen EU autonomy and geopolitical weight won him respect abroad and at home.
The French government spent billions of euros on keeping companies afloat during the pandemic, which came at the expense of increasing the national deficit. Macron’s signature policy during the crisis – which required people to show proof of vaccination to live their lives as normal – helped raise vaccination rates, but fired a vociferous minority against his presidency.
While Macron won 27.8% of the vote in the first round to take first place, the results indicated that voters were dissatisfied with the status quo. Candidates on the extreme left and right wing accounted for unprecedented 57% of the ballots cast in the first round, and 26.3% of registered voters stayed at home – resulting in the lowest turnout in 20 years.
The candidates ended their election campaign on Friday. They are barred from campaigning on Saturday and Sunday, while the media are subject to strict reporting restrictions until polling stations close at 8pm local time.