French elections: voters go to the polls in the presidential race
Twelve candidates, including incumbent Emmanuel Macron, are running for the top job. If none of them obtains more than 50% of the vote, the first two candidates will face each other in a second round on April 24. the current system.
Macron is seeking to become the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Centrist Macron faces a litany of challengers from the political extremes, including Marine Le Pen, a longtime standard-bearer for France’s far-right; television expert and author Eric Zemmour; and leftist instigator Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Most analysts have said the contest will be a referendum on the rise of the French right, but the war in Ukraine has upended those expectations.
The president proposed a higher diesel tax early in his term, sparking the yellow vests movement, one of the most protracted protests in France in decades. His record on the Covid-19 pandemic, the other significant crisis of his presidency, is not settled. Macron’s signature Covid-era policy – requiring people to show proof of vaccination to lead normal lives – has helped boost vaccination rates but sparked a vocal minority opposed to his presidency.
Macron has so far campaigned very little and refused to debate with his opponents. Experts say his strategy was to avoid political slander for as long as possible to brandish his image as the most presidential of all candidates.
Le Pen, for his part, has had a more mainstream campaign this year compared to his last bid to win the presidency. While immigration control remains her campaign priority, she has toned down her anti-Islam tone and dropped her calls for France’s exit from the European Union – particularly in the wake of Brexit – to win voters outside his base.
Political analysts say Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living could bear fruit, as soaring prices of daily consumer goods and energy are among the electorate’s top concerns.
Many pundits also expected the war to harm the campaigns of Le Pen and Zemmour, as both had previously spoken fondly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen deleted a campaign leaflet with a picture of her visiting the Russian leader, while Zemmour backtracked after promising Putin would never invade Ukraine.
Nathalie Loiseau, a member of the European Parliament and Macron’s first European affairs minister, told CNN she believed the French president was motivated by “a sense of duty”.
“He’s not doing it for electoral reasons. He’s doing it because he thinks he has to,” she said.
But Macron’s decision to give up campaigning instead of seeking a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, whether politically or principled, could prove to be a liability.
“It’s not rewarding. He won’t have a big win. He knows that. But he has to do it,” Loiseau said.