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ELECTION

French voters go to the polls with their country and Europe at a crossroads

French voters went to the polls under heavy security Sunday for the first round of the most unpredictable presidential election in decades, with the outcome seen as vital for the future of the beleaguered European Union.

French voters go to the polls with their country and Europe at a crossroads
Photo: AFP

Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) and the last will close in major cities at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) with estimated results expected soon afterwards.

Hundreds of thousands of French expatriates in the US, Canada and South America already cast their ballots on Saturday.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are the frontrunners to progress to a run-off on May 7 but the result is too close to call in a deeply divided country.

Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of the National Front (FN), hopes to capitalise on security jitters that were catapulted to the fore of the campaign after the fatal shooting of a policeman on Paris's Champs Ulysses avenue claimed by the Islamic State group.

Aiming to ride a wave of populism that led Donald Trump to the White House and Britain to vote for Brexit, Le Pen also wants to pull France out of the eurozone and has threatened to take the country out of the EU as well.

Her ambitions have led observers to predict that a Le Pen victory could be a fatal blow for the EU, already weakened by Britain's vote to leave the bloc.

Macron, only 39, is seeking to become France's youngest ever president and has campaigned on a strongly pro-EU and pro-business platform.

Seeking to benefit from a worldwide move away from established political parties, the former banker formed his own movement “En Marche” (“On the move”) that he says is “neither to the left nor to the right.”

But polls show scandal-tainted conservative candidate Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, and hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon are also in with a fighting chance of finishing among the top two candidates and reaching the all-important second round.

“Whoever the candidate is who is elected president of the Republic, it will be momentous,” Edouard Lecerf from polling institute Kantar Public told The Local.

 

“If it's Marine Le Pen, it's completely incredible. If it's Emmanuel Macron, who's only been in politics for two years, it's incredible. If it's François Fillon after everything that has happened, then it's also an incredible result.”

'They're all disappointing' 

In the wake of the policeman's killing on Thursday, 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers will be deployed around France to protect voters.

Analysts believe the attack so late in the campaign could shift the focus from the economy to security and hand an advantage to candidates seen as taking a hard line on the issue.

“If it were to benefit someone, that would clearly be Marine Le Pen who has dominated this issue throughout the campaign, or Francois Fillon,” said Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of the BVA polling institute.

In the aftermath of the attack, Le Pen called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the EU and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.

US President Trump tweeted that the shooting “will have a big effect” on the election.

Closely watched around the world, the French campaign has been a rollercoaster ride of unpredictable twists and turns.

A race that began with the surprise nomination of Fillon as right-wingcandidate in November shifted into a higher gear in December when unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande decided not to seek re-election.

Hollande's five years in office have been dogged by a sluggish economy and a string of terror attacks that have cost more than 230 lives since 2015.

Fillon was the early frontrunner until his support waned after he was charged following accusations he gave his British-born wife a fictional job as his parliamentary assistant for which she was paid nearly 700,000 euros ($750,000) of public money.

Though there are four main contenders in the election, a total of 11 candidates are taking part, most in single digits.

The candidate for the governing Socialists, Benoit Hamon, was a distant fifth going into the final weekend.

In such a close-fought race, the quarter of French voters still undecided could play a crucial role in the outcome.

Speaking to The Local on the eve of the election Khadija Hamoneau, a 27-year-old, bank employee, one of the millions of undecided summed up the problem facing many wavering French voters.

“At the moment, no candidate has convinced me,” she told The Local.

“It is the most complicated election I've ever experienced. I can't vote for Fillon: he's a crook. I can't vote for Le Pen: she's a xenophobe, she's worse than her father because she actually has a chance to win,” she said.

“Macron has Presidential charisma but encompasses the right and the left, and seems to despise the working class.

“Hamon's program is blurry, people from his own party desert him.

“As for Mélenchon, it's out of question, he's a non-racist version of Le Pen.”

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ELECTION

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”

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