PARIS — France began voting in a presidential runoff election on Sunday with repercussions for Europe's future, with centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron the front-runner but facing a tough challenge from far-right rival Marine Le Pen.
The centrist Macron is asking voters to trust him for a second five-year term despite the fact that the presidency has been troubled by protests, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. A Macron victory in the vote would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.
The outcome of voting in France, a nation with one of the world s biggest economies, could affect the conflict in Ukraine, as France has played a key role in diplomatic efforts and support for sanctions against Russia.
Le Pen's support in France's electorate has risen to her highest level ever, and much will depend on how many people turn out to vote on Sunday. Many people expected to choose Macron are doing so to keep out Le Pen and ideas seen as too extreme and anti-democratic, such as her plan to ban the Muslim headscarf in public or her ties to Russia.
Both candidates are trying to win over the 7.7 million votes of the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was defeated in the first vote.
For many who voted for left-wing candidates in the first round of April 10, this runoff vote presents a unpalatable choice between a nationalist in Le Pen and a president who some feel has veered to the right during his first term. The outcome could depend on how leftist voters decide to support Macron or abstaining and leave him to fend for himself against Le Pen.
The margin over his 53-year-old nationalist rival varies widely from 6 to 15 percentage points, but all opinion polls tend to favor a win for the 44-year-old pro-European centrist. Polls also predicted a record number of people who will cast a blank vote or not vote at all.
Earlier this week, Macron took the gloves in a two-hour 45-minute debate — the last of the campaign — tearing into his far-right challenger as he seeks the votes he needs to win.
Even Macron acknowledged that the approach has found resonance with the wider public because of the fact that Le Pen tried to appeal to working class voters struggling with rising prices because of Russia's war in Ukraine. She said if elected as France's first woman president, bringing down the cost of living would be her priority, and she portrayed herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She says that Macron's presidency has left the country deeply divided. She has referenced the so-called yellow vest protest movement that rocked his government before the Covid 19 epidemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his policies that some thought hurt the poorest.
The French presidential campaign has been particularly challenging for voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities. Polling shows that the majority of France's Muslim population - the largest in Western Europe - voted for far left candidates in the first round, so their voice could be decisive.
Macron has also praised his environmental and climate accomplishments in a bid to draw in young voters popular with far left candidates. Millennials and citizens voted for Melenchon. Many young voters are particularly interested in climate issues.
Macron was associated with the slogan Make The Planet Great Again, but in his first five-year term he capitulated to angry yellow vest protesters by scrapping a tax hike on fuel prices. Macron said his next prime minister will be placed in charge of environmental planning as France tries to become carbon neutral by the year 2050.
Le Pen, once considered a climate-change skeptic, wants to scrap subsidies for renewable energies. She vowed to dismantle wind farms and invest in nuclear and hydro energy.