French voters head to the polls on Sunday, for the second time this month, facing a stark choice between two candidates with far different visions for the country, Europe and the world in a closely-watched, high-stakes election with broad ramifications beyond the country’s borders.
The second round of voting for the presidency sees incumbent Emmanuel Macron face-off against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, the same matchup as five years ago.
Back then Mr Macron was the young, favored upstart, challenging the duopoly of the centre-right and centre-left political parties that had dominated French politics for a decade. But now it is Mr Macron who is the establishment candidate, facing off against Ms Le Pen, who has painted him as an out-of-touch elitist to increasingly angry voters.
In the first-round, fringe and anti-establishment candidates of the left and right won more than 60 per cent of the vote. Ms Le Pen has studiously sought to soften her image of her and that of the five-decade movement she inherited from her extreme-right father of her, Jean Marie Le Pen.
Supporters of Mr Macron tend to be richer, city-dwelling and cosmopolitan while those of Ms Le Pen are poorer, rural and conservative.
The outcome of the election will largely hinge on turnout during what is expected to be a partly rainy day that falls within French scholastic holidays that will see some families travelling.
France does not allow mail-in balloting, but permits voters to designate proxies, and many voters leaving for holidays were scrambling to find friends and relatives to cast ballots for them.
In the first-round, nearly a quarter of French voted for far-left candidates, especially Jean-Luc Melenchon, and whether they turn up to vote for Mr Macron, stay home or cast protest votes for Ms Le Pen will be decisive.
Those voters now hold the balance of power, and on Thursday, Mr Macron was in the heavily Muslim and immigrant Paris suburb of Seine Saint-Denis, courting voters who sided heavily with Mr Melenchon int he first round.
“All the inhabitants of our popular neighborhoods are an opportunity for our Republic,” he said. “We do not solve any problem by separating a part of our society.”
While Ms Le Pen could benefit from an electorate simmering with resentments over economic and social issues, she has lost ground to Mr Macron in the weeks since the first round as her agenda has come under scrutiny. Her platform includes undermining European Union rules, discriminating against Muslims and immigrants, and cozying up to the Kremlin.
The latest polls show Le Pen losing to Mr Macron by as much as 15 points, a margin that has widened since a three-hour televised debate between the two candidates on Wednesday.
“Throughout the campaign she has tried to portray herself as a nice lady who loves her cats and wants to help people pay their bills,” said Emma Pearson, editor of The Locala French news website, and co-host of the Talking France podcast.
“But as soon as you start reading Marine Le Pen’s policies she really is very extreme.”
During their debate, Mr Macron accused Ms Le Pen of wanting to create a dystopian France where police persecuted religious minorities.
Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of presiding over a deterioration of the quality of life and purchasing power for French. She continued to hammer away at those same themes during the final days of campaigning, describing Mr Macron as “nonchalant, condescending” and “with limitless arrogance.”
“Everyone understood that Emmanuel Macron did not like the French and especially those who do not agree with his policies because they endure it in their daily lives,” she said during a speech with supporters in far northwest France on Thursday. “Can we entrust five more years to a president who shrugs his shoulders and never questions himself?
France is one of only nine nuclear weapons powers as well as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Ms Le Pen, who has been close to President Vladmir Putin for years, has said she might withhold lethal aid for Ukrainian forces battling a Russian invasion, and remove Paris from the Nato integrated command, jeopardizing efforts to confront Moscow’s ambitions in eastern Europe.
The high stakes of the election were highlighted by German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who issued a ringing endorsement for Mr Macron in a tweet on Thursday.
“The choice that the French people are facing is critical for France and for Europe,” he wrote. “It is the choice between a democratic candidate, who believes that France grows in a powerful EU. And a far-right candidate, who openly sides with those attacking our freedom and democracy.”
In a series of tweets, even Alexey Navalny, the jailed Russian dissident, alleged that Ms Le Pen had taken loans from a bank that he described as “Putin’s notorious money-laundering outfit” and urged French voters to back Mr Macron.
“Elections are always difficult,” he wrote. “But you have to go to them to at least vote against someone. I won’t be able to wear a scarf in solidarity with the French on April 24 — it’s considered a ‘dress code offence’ here, they might put me in solitary confinement for that. But I will root for France, the French and Emmanuel Macron.”
Ms Le Pen, in turn, has been praised by Steve Bannon, the far-right American commentator who helped Donald Trump achieve victory in the 2016 elections.
“Marine Le Pen does not need my help to win,” he reportedly said in an interview with French broadcasters. “I am her friend of her, maybe her colleague of her, but she will win this election by herself.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.