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PARIS – Emmanuel Macron once again faces far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the country’s presidential election, in a repeat of the 2017 battle.
The French will vote in the re-election on April 24, after Macron and Le Pen emerged as the two best candidates in the first round on April 10.
While no incumbent president has been re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002 – both the Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist François Hollande were elected only once – Macron is at the forefront this year. But the race also looks much closer than in 2017, where all opinion polls show that far-right leader Marine Le Pen is expected to do much better than five years ago.
Here’s what you need to know to see the choice as a professional.
How does the two-round system work?
On April 10, the French voted in the first round of presidential elections. They chose Macron and Le Pen from among 12 candidates – including veteran politicians and novices.
Macron and Le Pen, the two candidates who have garnered the most votes, are now facing a final reshuffle this Sunday to decide who will be on the Elysée for the next five years.
A media blackout starts at midnight on Friday and ends on Sunday, when the last polling station closes at 20. During that period, politicians are not allowed to campaign or speak in public. Newspapers and TV channels will have to wait until the media blackout is lifted, to show opinion polls or broadcast estimates, so as not to influence citizens who have not yet voted.
Initial poll estimates from leading polling institutes – usually close to the final result – will be out at 8pm on Sunday, with official results announced later that evening.
Who is running?
Chairman Emmanuel Macron seeking re-election. The presidential candidate has pushed a reformist agenda forward in the home, including some very controversial ideas on labor law, and pushed a major economic package out to counter the COVID crisis. He has played a leading role on the international stage – albeit not always successfully, as evidenced by his efforts to stop Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
National Rally’s Marine Le Pen hinted that this presidential campaign will be her last – and it looks like she’s going to make it count. Her campaign, centered around the cost of living and economic hardship, hit a chord amid violent energy prices caused by the Ukraine war. She has also managed to partially sweep her long-standing support for Russian President Vladimir Putin under the rug and darken her right-wing extremist rival, TV expert, who became politician Eric Zemmour, who did not qualify for the second round. While she has withdrawn her more radical proposals to leave the euro and leave the EU since her run in 2017, much of her program – including drastic changes to the internal market – is largely incompatible with the bloc as it currently stands and would provide a dramatic blow to the EU.
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Who has a real chance to win?
Emmanuel Macron is expected to win on Sunday. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, Macron can win re-election with 55 percent of the vote in the second round, 10 points ahead of Le Pen.
That’s a big change from 2017, when Macron won with 66 percent of the vote and Le Pen only got 33 percent.
The French president entered the political arena at the last minute of this year, and his lackluster campaign has not caused sparks to fly. Recent revelations about the state’s excessive reliance on consulting firms have also put pressure on his re-election bid.
The distance between the two candidates was markedly narrowed prior to the first round. But since then, Macron support has risen again.
FRANCE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION QUESTION
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What happened between the two rounds?
More campaign and TV debate.
Over the past two weeks, Macron and Le Pen have hit the ground running in an attempt to convince those who did not vote for them in the first round or did not go to the polls.
Macron made a series of campaign visits aimed at crucial constituencies and gave a series of interviews, from the old radio station France Inter to a website specializing in rap music. Le Pen continued with a heavy agenda of excursions and spent the last day of his campaign in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France.
But the most iconic moment has been the traditional TV debate, where the two finalists met on Wednesday.
Considered one of the highlights of the campaign, the debate used to be very popular among the viewers. This time, only 16.5 million French people saw it, the worst viewing rate since the debate began.
Le Pen fared far better than in 2017, when her disastrous performance led to a steep drop in opinion polls and damaged her credibility in economic matters. But Macron did not miss the opportunity to attack the far-right candidate on her economic program, as well as on her proposal to ban scarves in public and accuse her of being on Putin’s payroll. Le Pen criticized Macron’s first term and his pension reform.
You can find the highlights of the debate here.
The TV duel has been a tradition since 1974, but it is not mandatory – in 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to engage with far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who had come to the second round for the first time in an uprising. victory still alive in France’s collective psyche.
Will people actually show up?
The French are usually fairly diligent voters, and they achieved with rates of about 80 percent at the last presidential election. In the first round earlier this month, 26 percent of voters decided to stay home, a fairly high abstinence as the presidential election goes, but lower than predicted by opinion polls.
Yet the French are worn out by the corona crisis and the war in Ukraine. And the perception of Macron as the inevitable winner as well as his low-key campaign has not helped. Both rounds also coincide with school holidays in different parts of the country
For Macron, facing its biggest challenges from the far right and far left, voter apathy poses a threat in itself. It can not only favor his challenger, who can count on motivated bases to show up for her; it gives his opponents the opportunity to judge his expected re-election as lacking legitimacy.
Has Ukraine changed anything?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has overshadowed the French presidential campaign and is helping to explain why turnout was rather low.
It benefited Macron in its early days, when far-right and left-wing candidates had to explain or justify earlier comments praising Putin, while the French president posed as a warlord capable of protecting Europe.
In general, the war has shifted French political dialogue from identity issues and COVID to energy and purchasing power – which is, in fact, the most important issue for voters.
Why should I worry?
What is at stake is the name of the person who will lead France for the next five years and as such is likely to have a decisive influence on the EU. The election will also determine the shape of the country’s political landscape in the coming years.
Needless to say, Le Pen’s victory is seen as a nightmare in Brussels. Although the right-wing candidate softened some of her Eurosceptic views, many of her proposals would concretely push France out of the Union.
As in 2017, the first round left a deep mark on the domestic political arena.
Traditional games from center to left and center to right scored disastrously in the first round. In parallel, the left-wing France Unbowed movement, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, recorded an unprecedented 22 percent score. Mélenchon appeared in third place, after Macron and Le Pen, and dreams of taking revenge in the June parliamentary elections, which he framed as a “third round” and one that could lead him to prime minister.
I’ve heard there’s another choice around the corner… is that right?
Yes. While parties have been arguing for weeks over constituencies, strategies and alliances, France’s political class is already preparing for the next election milestone: the parliamentary elections in June, which will define the majority in the country’s national assembly or lower house in parliament.
Turnout is traditionally lower in parliamentary elections, which also take place every five years. Voters tend to elect members of parliament who come from the same political family as the president they have just elected.
Nevertheless, if Macron wins, it may prove more difficult to have an absolute majority in the National Assembly compared to 2017, as his potential victory has to be much smaller than five years ago. Meanwhile, he will have to consolidate alliances with powerful internal rivals such as the heavyweight former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who is seeking to expand his own political movement – called the Horizons.