French people flocked to polling stations across the country on Sunday for the first round of presidential voting where up to 48 million people will choose between 12 candidates.
President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a second five-year term but faces a major challenge from the far right.
Voting centers opened at 8 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) in most places, and as late as 8 p.m. in some larger cities. France has a manual voting system: citizens must personally deposit their ballots, which are then counted by hand.RELATED
If no candidate gets more than half of the national votes, a second round will be held on Sunday, April 24.
Voters bundled up against the April chill lined up before opening time at a polling station south of Paris. Once inside, they placed their paper ballots in envelopes and then in transparent boxes, some with masks and disinfectant gel as a prevention against COVID-19.
Many candidates made early visits to their own polling stations, smiling at reporters.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen votes at a polling station in the town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France on Sunday during the first round of presidential elections. (EFE/ STEPHANIE LECOCQ)
Valerie Pecresse of the Republican Party cast her vote in Velizy-Villacoublay, southwest of Paris, while far-right leader Marine Le Pen voted in Henin-Beaumont, a town in northern France 190 kilometers (120 mi) away. northeast of Paris. Macron and his wife voted in the town of Le Touquet, in northern France.
In addition to Macron, among the candidates best positioned to reach the Elysee are Le Pen and the combative far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.
For months, it looked like the centrist Macron had a victory in his pocket to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But the picture became less clear as the campaign entered the final stretch, and the blow of inflation on fuel, food and energy prices became the main theme of the campaign in many low-income households. That could drive voters into the arms of Le Pen, Macron’s political nemesis.
Macron defeated Le Pen in 2017 to become the country’s youngest president. The victory of the former banker, who is now 44 years old, was interpreted as a triumph against populist and nationalist politics after the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the British vote in favor of leaving the European Union, both in 2016.
Populist Viktor Orban won a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister a few days ago, and now eyes have turned to revitalized far-right French candidates, especially National Front leader Le Pen, who wants to ban the wearing of the hijab. Muslim in the streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe. These elections could transform French identity after World War II and indicate whether European populism is on the rise or decline.
For his part, a victory for Macron would be perceived as one for the European Union. Observers point out that a re-election of the president would make more likely an increase in cooperation and investment in European security and defense, especially with a new pro-European German government.
With a war on the eastern flank of the EU, French voters will decide on a presidential election with international implications. France is the second largest economy in the bloc of 27 countries, the only one with the right of veto in the United Nations Security Council and its only nuclear power. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues the war in Ukraine, the power of France will factor into the European response.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has offered Macron the opportunity to demonstrate his influence on the international scene and his pro-NATO position in electoral debates. Macron is the only one of the favorites who supports the alliance, while the others have different concepts of France’s role in it. Melenchon is one of those who wants to abandon it completely, arguing that it brings nothing but disputes and instability.
A French exit would deal a severe blow to the alliance, built 73 years ago to protect its members from the Cold War.
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