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French get déjà vu as presidential race pits Macron, Le Pen in runoff

The most votes in the first round of the election went to French President Emmanuel Macron who now must take on far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a runoff.

(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen are headed to a second-round runoff in two weeks after they picked up the most ballots Sunday in the first round of the presidential election.

The same match-up happened five years ago in the last presidential runoff, but this time around polls suggest Le Pen has a better chance to prevail.

With her deep ties to Europe's xenophobic and nationalist far-right movements, a Le Pen win would not just be a major upset but a historic shock to the European Union. France is the EU's second-largest economy, the bloc's only nuclear-armed military and, along with Germany, has great sway in steering the 27-state project, which increasingly aims to make a united Europe a global power.

In Sunday's contest, Macron picked up about 27.8% of the vote and Le Pen took in 23.2%. Far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon came in third with nearly 22%.

For the second presidential election in a row, France's traditional big-tent parties on the left and right — the Socialists and Republicans — failed miserably as voters across nearly all age groups were lured by the more extreme voices of Le Pen and Melenchon. The traditional mainstream parties have also obviously lost votes to Macron, a former Socialist who created his own party in 2017.

“The presidential election has become very personified; it's much more about the candidate, and it doesn't really appear to be about the party anymore,” said Georgina Wright, an expert with Institut Montaigne, a French think tank, commenting for France 24 television.

The runoff will take place on April 24, a Sunday. Before the runoff vote, Le Pen and Macron will sit down for a major debate on April 20. Five years ago, Le Pen performed very poorly in the debate and that helped seal her defeat. But she will likely be much better prepared this time around and expectations for her will be low.

Sunday was a disaster for the center-left Socialists, represented by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. She won only 1.7% of the vote, by far the worst result ever for the Socialists. Only 10 years ago, the Socialists were in power under former President Francois Hollande, but the party has cratered since then.

France's center-right Les Republicains also fared dismally with their candidate, Valerie Pecresse, picking up only 4.8%, just under the important threshold of 5%. The state reimburses parties' campaign expenses when they reach 5% and above.

In a victory speech, Macron portrayed Le Pen as a threat to France and anathema to the nation's core values.

“I do not want France to pull out of the EU and to only have international xenophobes and populists as allies — that is not us,” Macron said.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen speaks during a meeting with French mayors in Montrouge, south of Paris, on March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

His words were an obvious reference to Le Pen's friendly relations with fellow far-right leaders in Europe, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. She also has spoken warmly about Russian President Vladimir Putin and received Russian funding for her campaigns.

Le Pen took over the openly xenophobic National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. Following her defeat to Macron in 2017, she changed the name of the party to National Rally and sought to rebrand it as moderate.

Still, at its core, her party remains deeply nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-EU. Le Pen has spoken out in the past against the supranational powers of the EU, and she represents French voters — many of them from blue-collar, rural and small business groups — who believe France would be better off outside the bloc. In recent years, she's stopped talking about leaving the EU but talked about changing the EU from within.

Round 1 of the election saw Le Pen running a toned-down campaign where she spent weeks traveling the country to speak with voters and talked about bread-and-butter issues.

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Last fall, as the campaign started to heat up, Le Pen seemed to be fading in the polls as others entered the race, in particular the far-right journalist and television personality Eric Zemmour. But in recent weeks, as inflation started to soar due to the Ukraine war, Le Pen's poll numbers shot up as she kept the focus on the rising cost of living. Zemmour ended up with about 7% of the vote, putting him fourth in the race. He endorsed Le Pen following the vote count.

On Sunday night, Le Pen said she would “bring this country back into a time of recovery” and tackle “territorial, social, institutional, digital, medical” gaps in French society.

Her main strategy has been to label Macron as a president for the rich. Macron was a former Rothschild investment banker, and he has pursued neoliberal policies to lower taxes on wealth, raise the retirement age and make it easier to fire workers. But Macron's become a divisive center-right politician since taking over the Elysee Palace in 2017.

“For years now French people have been torn between two visions of the culture: One of disorder and injustice, one that Macron has brought in and that favors some over the majority,” she said.

“We want to protect people against the powers of money,” she said. “We want to show solidarity with the weakest among us. We will ensure that people have a fair retirement.”

She added: “I will ensure security for all by listening, listening to you, citizens of France who have been ignored all too often by elected officials.”

A supporter of French President Emmanuel Macron holds a poster in Paris on April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

Polls predict Macron will come out ahead in the runoff, but Le Pen appears to be closing in. In 2017, she lost badly to Macron in the runoff, picking up about 34% of the votes to Macron's 66%.

The contest between Macron and Le Pen will largely be fought over the chunk of voters who voted for Melenchon and to a lesser degree the supporters of the other nine candidates in the first round.

On Sunday, Melenchon told his supporters they need to pick “between two lesser evils” but that “not a single vote” should go toward Le Pen. Still, he did not tell his backers to vote for Macron.

Melenchon was criticized in 2017 for not emphatically denouncing Le Pen, and he made sure on Sunday there was no ambiguity about his negative views of the far-right leader. Still, many Melenchon voters may be inclined to support Le Pen's anti-establishment rhetoric and pro-worker economic prescriptions or simply not vote, which could benefit Le Pen.

“I know your anger, my fellow citizens,” Melenchon said about facing a Le Pen-Macron runoff. “But do not give in to it. Don't let your anger do things that would be irreparable.”

Hidalgo and Pecresse urged their supporters to vote for Macron, as did other losing candidates, including Fabien Roussel, the leader of the French Communist Party, and Yannick Jadot, the leader of France's Green party.

“Her plan would see France disappear from the European stage and the international stage,” Pecresse said about Le Pen. “As I said time and time again throughout the campaign, I will vote for Emmanuel Macron to avoid seeing Marine Le Pen take power and bring about the chaos that would ensue.”

Until now, Macron has been largely absent from the campaign. He didn't make an official announcement about seeking reelection until early March, and he spent very little time campaigning, arguing that he was too busy dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. Macron was at the center diplomatic talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and flew to Moscow in early February. But his efforts were to no avail and Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

On Sunday, Macron revved up his reelection bid with an animated speech in which he contrasted his pro-EU vision with that of Le Pen.

“I want France to be part of a strong EU, continuing to create alliances with the great democracies of the world so that we can defend ourselves,” he said.

He tried to appeal to voters on the left, arguing that his policies would create jobs and drive down unemployment in France far more than than Le Pen's.

“I will convince you that the only project to improve purchasing power is ours,” he said. “The only credible project that will drive down the cost of living is ours.”

France, like the rest of Europe, is facing stiff economic headwinds following the coronavirus pandemic and rising inflation fueled by the Ukraine war. France spent about 240 billion euros (about $261 billion) on pandemic relief and inflation in March hit about 4.5%, which was lower than the 7.5% of the EU as a whole.

“I am ready to invent something new, to bring beliefs together, to bring a range of desires together, to build with everyone a shared action that serves our nation for the years to come, this is our duty,” he said.

Still, he faces a tough reelection after five difficult years that saw his ambitious plans to overhaul French society and economy largely derailed by the mass “yellow vests” protests in 2018.

"The race is going to be tight,” Wright said. “There is a question there about what happens to left-wing voters: Will they abstain?”

Following the April 24 presidential runoff, France will hold national parliamentary elections in June.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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