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PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is again facing far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the country’s presidential election, in a repeat of the 2017 battle.
The French will vote in the runoff on April 24, after Macron and Le Pen emerged as the top two candidates in the first round on April 10.
While no sitting president has been reelected since Jacques Chirac in 2002 — both conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande were elected only once — Macron is the front-runner this year. But the race also looks much closer than in 2017, with all polls showing that far-right leader Marine Le Pen is expected to do much better than five years ago.
Here’s what you need to know to watch the election like a pro.
How does the two-round system work?
On April 10, the French voted in the presidential election’s first round. They chose Macron and Le Pen from among 12 candidates — including veteran politicians and newbies.
Macron and Le Pen, the two candidates who gathered the most votes, are now facing a final runoff this Sunday to decide who will be at the Elysée for the next five years.
A media blackout starts at midnight Friday and ends on Sunday when the last polling station closes at 8 p.m. During that period, politicians are not allowed to campaign or speak publicly. Newspapers and TV channels will have to wait until the media blackout is lifted to show polls or broadcast estimate results, so as not to influence citizens who haven’t voted yet.
First vote estimates by leading polling institutes — usually close to the final outcome — will be out at 8 p.m., Sunday, with official results published later that night.
Who is running?
President Emmanuel Macron is seeking reelection. The president-candidate has pushed forward a reformist agenda at home, including some very contentious ideas on labor law, and pushed out a big economic package to face the COVID crisis. He has taken a predominant role on the international stage – albeit not always successfully, as shown by his efforts to stop Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The National Rally’s Marine Le Pen hinted that this presidential campaign will be her last — and it looks like she will make it count. Her campaign, centered around the cost of living and economic hardship, struck a chord amid rocketing energy prices caused by the Ukraine war. She has also managed to partly sweep her long-lasting support for Russian President Vladimir Putin under the rug and eclipse her far-right rival, TV pundit-turned-politician Eric Zemmour, who didn’t qualify for the second round. While she has withdrawn her more radical proposals to exit the euro and leave the EU since her 2017 run, much of her program — including drastic changes to the single market — is largely incompatible with the bloc as it currently stands and would deal a dramatic blow to the EU.
Who has an actual shot at winning?
Emmanuel Macron is expected to win on Sunday. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, Macron could win reelection with 55 percent of the second-round vote, 10 points clear of Le Pen.
This is a big change compared with 2017, when Macron won with 66 percent of votes and Le Pen only got 33 percent.
The French president entered the political arena at the last minute this year and his lackluster campaign has failed to make sparks fly. Recent revelations about the state’s over-reliance on consulting firms have also put a strain on his reelection bid.
The gap between the two candidates narrowed significantly ahead of the first round. But since then, support for Macron has increased again.
What happened between the two rounds?
More campaigning and a TV debate.
Over the past two weeks, Macron and Le Pen hit the ground in a bid to convince those who didn’t vote for them in the first round or did not go to the polls.
Macron made a series of campaign visits targeted at crucial constituencies and gave a string of interviews, from legacy radio station France Inter to a website specialized in rap music. Le Pen continued with an agenda heavy on field trips and spent the last day of her campaign in the Pas-de-Calais department, in the north of France.
But the most iconic moment has been the traditional televised debate where the two finalists faced off on Wednesday.
Considered as one of the campaign’s highlights, the debate used to be used to be very popular with viewers. This time only 16.5 million of French watched it, the worst viewing rate since the debate began.
Le Pen did way better than in 2017, when her disastrous performance led to a steep drop in the polls and damaged her credibility on economic issues. But Macron didn’t miss the opportunity to attack the far-right candidate on her economic program as well as on her proposal to ban headscarfs in public and to accuse her of being on Putin’s payroll. Le Pen slammed Macron’s first mandate and his pensions reform.
You can find back the highlights of the debate here.
The TV duel has been a tradition since 1974 but it’s not legally mandatory — in 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to engage with far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who had for the first time made it to the second round in an upset win still vivid in France’s collective psyche.
Will people actually show up?
The French are usually pretty diligent voters, turning out at rates of around 80 percent in recent presidential elections. In the first round earlier this month, 26 percent of the electorate decided to stay home, a quite high abstention as presidential elections go but lower than predicted by the polls.
Still, French people are worn down by the coronavirus crisis and the war in Ukraine. And the perception of Macron as the inevitable winner as well as his low-key campaign haven’t helped. Both rounds also coincide with school holidays in various parts of the country
For Macron, who faces his greatest challenges from the far right and far left, voter apathy presents a threat of its own. Not only might it favor his challenger who can count on motivated bases to turn out for her; it presents his opponents with the opportunity to cast his expected reelection as lacking legitimacy.
Has Ukraine changed anything?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has overshadowed the French presidential campaign and helps explain why the turnout was quite low.
It benefited Macron in its early days, as far-right and far-left candidates had to explain or justify past comments praising Putin, while the French president cast himself as a war leader who can protect Europe.
Overall, the war has shifted the French political conversation from identity issues and COVID to energy and purchasing power — which is actually the most important issue for voters.
Why should I care ?
What’s at stake is the name of the person who will run France for the next five years, and as such will likely have a decisive influence over the EU. The election will also determine the shape of the country’s political landscape in the coming years.
Needless to say, Le Pen’s victory is seen as a nightmare in Brussels. Even if the right-wing candidate softened some of her Euroskeptic positions, many of her proposals would concretely push France out of the Union.
As in 2017, the first round left a profound mark on the domestic political arena.
Traditional parties from the center left and the center right scored disastrously in the first round. In parallel, the left-wing France Unbowed movement, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, registered an unprecedented score at 22 percent. Mélenchon emerged in third place, after Macron and Le Pen, and is dreaming about taking his revenge at the parliamentary election in June, which he framed as a “third round” and one able to propel him to prime minister.
I’ve heard there’s another election around the corner … is that right?
Yes. As parties have bickered for weeks over constituencies, strategies and alliances, France’s political class is already preparing for the next electoral milestone: the legislative elections in June, which will define the majority in the country’s National Assembly, or lower house of parliament.
Turnout is traditionally lower in the legislative elections, which also take place every five years. Voters tend to choose members of parliament who come from the same political family as the president they have just elected.
Nonetheless, if Macron does win, it could prove trickier to have an absolute majority in the National Assembly compared with 2017, as his potential victory is bound to be much narrower than five years ago. Meanwhile, he will have to consolidate alliances with powerful internal rivals such as heavyweight former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who is looking to expand his own political movement — dubbed Horizons.