Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron takes on far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in a rematch of the 2017 presidential election on Sunday.
The vote is a runoff, as none of the candidates won more than 50% of the vote in a previous round of voting on April 10. But the end result should be much closer than it was five years ago, when Macron beat Le Pen. with two-thirds of the votes. Currently, polls show Macron with a slight advantage.
The first results are expected to appear after the last polls close at 8 p.m. local time on Sunday, or 2 p.m. ET. The first round of elections saw a turnout of nearly 74%, a slight drop from the 2017 race.
Here’s why elections matter far beyond France’s borders:
Will right-wing ideology continue to spread in Europe?
At the heart of the election is a choice between a political centrist – Macron – and a right-wing populist, Le Pen.
Right-wing sentiment has spread across Europe in recent years. Rising immigration, the refugee crisis, economic challenges and the coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to voters choosing right-wing candidates and policies – like Brexit, for example, and the parliamentary elections in Hungary this month, in which autocratic leader Viktor Orban’s party overcame a united effort by opposition parties to block his fourth term.
Le Pen has called for dramatic cuts in immigration and a ban on the Muslim headscarf. His party, formerly known as the National Front, was founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and was once associated with Holocaust denial and Islamophobia.
The young Le Pen tried to soften the image of the party. She defined her policies as necessary to protect the interests of French women and LGBTQ people.
His competitiveness in this election is an indication that his efforts have worked, says Nonna Mayer, a French political scientist who studies the far right.
“She gave a new electoral dynamic to the party because she is a woman and she was able to speak out and rally the female voters, who were rebuffed by the father,” Mayer said.
Will France remain focused on Europe or will it withdraw into itself?
Macron has spent much of his five years in power focusing on Europe and strengthening the European Union. He has worked ambitiously to position himself as one of the continent’s top diplomats, including in his past efforts to win over President Donald Trump and, more recently, in his work to seek a peaceful solution to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
France has the second largest economy in the European Union and the defense website Global Firepower claims that France has the most powerful military in the EU. But some French voters, unhappy with conditions at home, believe Macron has prioritized the continent over conditions at home.
“Macron bothers us with Europe. Every time he opens his mouth, he talks about Europe, Europe, Europe. When is he going to talk about France?” says Raymond Blot, a resident of Elbeuf, in northern Normandy. Blot says he plans to vote for Le Pen.
Le Pen presented herself as the candidate most focused on ordinary French residents, especially working-class voters who have struggled economically in recent years. But she backed down from some of her more extreme positions, including her one-off campaign for France to leave the European Union.
“Voters care first about the domestic situation, and we elect the French president with the intention of having someone to defend French interests,” says Martin Quencez, a Paris-based researcher at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Le Pen’s ties to Russia are relevant again
With Russia’s war in Ukraine, Le Pen’s long-criticized ties to Russia were rekindled.
The top Czech-Russian bank loaned Le Pen’s party €9m in 2014. The loan has come under scrutiny ever since. Le Pen’s personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including a visit with the leader to Moscow in 2017, have also drawn criticism.
Macron seized on those points during a presidential debate on Wednesday, accusing Le Pen of being “under the thumb of Russia.”
“You cannot properly defend the interests of France on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power,” he said. “You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin.”
Le Pen said French banks had refused to lend his party money, leaving him no other choice. And on Wednesday, she said she supported the sanctions that France and other countries imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
But she also said Russia’s isolation by the West could push Moscow toward China. “It could be a huge risk for the West, for Europe and for France,” she said.