The French began voting on Sunday for the first round of a presidential election disrupted by the war in Ukraine and full of uncertainty, with the prospect of a duel between the incumbent head of state Emmanuel Macron and his rival of far-right Marine Le Pen, who has never seemed so close to victory.
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Some 48.7 million French people are called to the polls to choose between twelve candidates, at the end of a strange campaign, marked first by the pandemic then by the war in Ukraine which obscured part of the debate.
The polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) in mainland France, while some of the French overseas began to vote on Saturday. The first estimates will be known at 8:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. GMT) after the closing of the last voting centers. The Ministry of the Interior will give at midday the first figures concerning the participation rate, feared to be down.
Many political scientists fear that the abstention record of 2002 (28.4%), the highest level ever recorded for a first round of presidential elections, will be beaten.
At 10:00 GMT, turnout was 25.48%, down three points from that of the 2017 presidential election, but higher than in 2002 (21.39%).
In Pantin, in the Paris region, Blandine Lehout, a 32-year-old actress, will not vote: “it’s the first time in my life”, “but there I hate them all. We are at a stage where they scare me,” she explains.
In Marseille (south-east), Carole Junique, 47, who works in the public service, came first thing in the morning. “In France, we have the right to vote, it is important to keep it; of course we only have one voice among others, but if everyone mobilizes, it can change things, ”she underlines.
Many do not hide that their choice was difficult. Cédric Hodimont, in his forties, thus regrets having made “a vote by default”.
Polls predict that Mr. Macron should come out on top, ahead of Ms. Le Pen, as in the previous poll in 2017, with radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in third place.
The various studies show that Mrs. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon have for several days been in a dynamic of progress, substantially reducing the gap with the outgoing president, who entered the campaign late.
But the abstention and the fact, still according to the polls, that a large part of the electorate is not sure of its choice seem to leave the game open.
Behind this trio, the other candidates seem off the hook, in particular that of the traditional right Valérie Pécresse and the other far-right contender Éric Zemmour.
For the second round, the polls give Mr. Macron the winner, but with a very narrow lead over Mrs. Le Pen, suggesting that a victory for the candidate is possible, which would constitute a double first in France, with the arrival of a woman and the extreme right in power.
This first round will close several months of a campaign whose major issues, in particular climate change, have been absent. Purchasing power is the main concern of voters, especially since the war in Ukraine has caused significant inflation, further eroding the financial capacities of the most precarious.
Mrs Le Pen has from the start centered her campaign on this theme, as has Mr Mélenchon, whose party calls on left-wing voters to vote “usefully” in his favor, rather than for the benefit of the many other left-wing candidates, such as the ecologist Yannick Jadot, the socialist Anne Hidalgo or the communist Fabien Roussel.
Faced with the possibility of a final victory for the far right, some candidates have already announced the position they will adopt on Sunday evening, such as Fabien Roussel who will block Ms. Le Pen. Valérie Pécresse will not give instructions, but will say for whom she will vote.
In the entourage of Mr. Macron, it is admitted that the reflex of the “republican front”, which he had benefited from when he was elected in 2017, is no longer obvious.
Given over after its failure five years ago, worried by the irruption of the polemicist Eric Zemmour, Ms. Le Pen went up the slope, going so far as to present herself, during a last meeting on Friday, as representing “the quiet France “Faced with an “aggressive” and “feverish” head of state.
By a communicating vase effect, the daughter and heiress of the sulphurous far-right tribune Jean-Marie Le Pen found herself refocused on the political chessboard by the irruption of Éric Zemmour.
Mr. Macron played on his image as commander-in-chief monopolized by the health and international crises. A posture which first served him, but which then made him appear disconnected from the daily concerns of the French. His image has also been affected by his refusal to engage in televised debates against his opponents.
Realizing the danger, the outgoing president called from the beginning of April for “mobilization” against a “trivialized” extreme right, and affirmed on Friday to have “the spirit of conquest rather than the spirit of defeat”.