(PARIS) — Incumbent Emmanuel Macron will face far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in a winner-takes-all runoff for the French presidency, after they both advanced Sunday in the first round of voting in the country’s election to set up another head-to-head clash of their sharply opposing visions for France.
But while Macron won their last contest in 2017 by a landslide to become France’s youngest-ever president, the same outcome this time is far from guaranteed. Macron, now 44, emerged ahead from Sunday’s first round, but the runoff is essentially a new election and the next two weeks of campaigning to the April 24 second-round vote promise to be bruising and confrontational against his 53-year-old political nemesis.
Savvier and more polished as she makes her third attempt to become France’s first woman president, Le Pen was handsomely rewarded Sunday at the ballot box for her years-long effort to rebrand herself as more pragmatic and less extreme. Macron accused Le Pen, a radical extremist who is pushing racial and destructive policies. Le Pen is seeking to revoke some rights, including the ban on Muslims from wearing headscarves while out and about, as well as to reduce outside European immigration.
She scored her highest ever first round vote total on Sunday. Macron was just above 27%, while Le Pen was just below 24% with the most votes. Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Hard-left was third and did not make it to the second round with nearly 22%.
Macron was able to improve on his 2017 first round showing, despite being surrounded by both domestic and global crises. They include Russia’s war in Ukraine that overshadowed the election and diverted his focus from the campaign.
Macron immediately began to invest his efforts in the campaign after polls showed that Le Pen was likely to win.
Addressing supporters Sunday night who chanted “five more years,” Macron warned that “nothing is done” and said the runoff campaign will be “decisive for our country and for Europe.”
Claiming that Le Pen would align France with “populists and xenophobes,” he said: “That’s not us.”
“I want to reach out to all those who want to work for France,” he said. He vowed to “implement the project of progress, of French and European openness and independence we have advocated for.”
The election outcome will have wide international influence as Europe struggles to contain the havoc wreaked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Macron supports sanctions by the European Union on Russia. Le Pen worries about how they will affect French living standards. Macron also is a firm supporter of NATO and of close collaboration among the European Union’s 27 members.
Macron for months had looked like a shoo-in to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But National Rally leader Le Pen, in a late surge, tapped into the foremost issue on many French voters’ minds: soaring costs for food, gas and heating due to rising inflation and the repercussions of Western sanctions on Russia.
Macron and Le Pen need to contact voters who voted for the candidates not elected on Sunday in order to win round 2.
For some of the losers’ disappointed supporters, the runoff vote promises to be agonizing. Melenchon voter Jennings Tangly, a 21-year-old student of English at Paris’ Sorbonne University, said the second-round match-up was an awful prospect for her, a choice “between the plague and cholera.”
She described Macron’s presidency as “abject,” but said she would vote for him in round two simply to keep Le Pen from the presidential Elysee Palace.
“It would be a survival vote rather than a vote with my heart,” she said.
Le Pen’s supporters celebrated with champagne and chanted “We’re going to win!” She sought to reach out to left-wing supporters for round two by promising fixes for “a France torn apart.”
She said the second round presents voters with “a fundamental choice between two opposing visions of the future: Either the division, injustice and disorder imposed by Emmanuel Macron to the benefit of the few, or the uniting of French people around social justice and protection.”
Some of her defeating rivals became so worried about Macron’s victory that they asked their supporters to vote for Macron in the second round. Melenchon, addressing supporters who sometimes shed tears, repeatedly said: “We must not give one vote to Mrs. Le Pen.”
Describing herself as “profoundly worried,” defeated conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse warned of “the chaos that would ensue” if Le Pen was elected, saying the far-right leader has never been so close to power. Pecresse declared that she would support Macron in the runoff.
Macron’s attempt to oust Le Pen will be to discredit her attempt at rebranding herself as a less risky political force. This rebranding has highlighted her passion for cats.
Some voters liked her soft image, while others were more skeptical.
Yves Maillot (a retired engineer) said he voted Macron because he wanted to be counterbalanced by Le Pen. He stated that he was concerned that France could be expelled from the EU because of her past hostility towards it, even though this is not what she had in her manifesto.
“I don’t think she’s changed at all,” he said. “It’s the same thing, but with cats.”
Thomas Adamson is an Associated Press journalist. Elaine Ganley was a contributor to the report. Patrick Hermansen also contributed.
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