(CN) — French voters go to the polls on Sunday in a tight presidential race that seems destined to once again star President Emmanuel Macron in a second-round runoff with Marine Le Pen, the mellowed far-right leader whose chances of a shocking upset victory are on the rise.
Voters will cast ballots in a crowded field spanning the spectrum of political persuasions and pick two candidates to send onto a second-round runoff set for April 24, a Sunday.
The campaign has been largely muted by the horrific events in Ukraine, making it awkward and discomforting for the candidates to hold jubilant rallies and perform the usual political antics.
Macron held his first — and only — big rally last Saturday in a packed Paris concert hall where about 30,000 supporters showed up. It was seen — and mocked by some — as an American-style event with fireworks, light shows, pulsing music and multiplex television screens with Macron entering the forum clutching at outstretched hands.
He used the rally to arouse fears over the threat of a Le Pen presidency, though he did not mention his far-right rival by name.
“My friends, as you understand, we must mobilize now,” Macron said. “The fight is now. It's the fight of progress against retreat. The fight for patriotism and for Europe against the nationalists.”
Macron has been on the top of polls since last July despite a rocky first term that saw deep voter dissatisfaction as well as massive protests by the so-called “yellow vests” largely derail his ambitious pro-business neoliberal agenda to overhaul French government and society.
In his first year as president, Macron was able to push through tax cuts on wealth and he made it easier to fire workers. There is some evidence his pro-business policies helped boost French tech companies and put a dent in unemployment. With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Macron switched to big government spending to keep the country on track.
But France, like the rest of Europe, is in the midst of tough economic headwinds caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. French voters are very worried about inflation, and Le Pen has made diminishing purchasing power the focus of her campaign. Meanwhile Macron has seen whatever bump in polls he had at the outset of Ukraine war, when he was Europe's chief diplomat in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, fizzle.
Dissatisfaction with Macron is strong, and the latest polls show the race narrowing as Le Pen picks up momentum along with the far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon. Voter surveys suggest she will pick up about 22% or more of the vote, about 5% fewer votes than Macron. Melenchon trails at about 16%, but along with Le Pen he is the only candidate whose support is swelling ahead of Sunday.
In a second round, polls project Macron will win with about 54% of the vote. But in 2017, Macron trounced Le Pen by picking up about 66% of the ballots and with the race so close his campaign is beginning to fret, especially at the prospect that many disillusioned or complacent French could simply stay home on election day. At Saturday's rally, Macron urged voters against complacency and abstention.
“It is no longer the kind of 30-point difference that you had five years ago when Macron defeated Le Pen,” Philippe Marliere, a professor of French politics at University College London, told Monocle Radio 24, a London-based news outlet. “The outcome of this election is very uncertain; we've never seen that.”
“His big enemy, as it were, is abstention,” Andrew Smith, a French expert at Chichester University, told France 24, a French public news broadcaster.
Recent history is not on Macron's side either. The last French incumbent president to win reelection was Jacques Chirac in 2002: Clearly, French voters are predisposed to sour on their heads of state. About 44% of French approve of Macron, polls show.