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ELECTION

French voters go to the polls to decide between Macron and Le Pen

French voters went to the polls Sunday to pick a new president, choosing between young centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a watershed election for the country and for Europe.

French voters go to the polls to decide between Macron and Le Pen
Photo: AFP/The Local

Polling day follows an unprecedented campaign marked by scandal, repeated surprises and a last-minute hacking attack on Macron, a 39-year-old who has never held elected office.

The run-off vote pits the pro-Europe, pro-business Macron against anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen, two radically different visions that underline a split in Western democracies.

Le Pen, 48, has portrayed the ballot as a contest between the “globalists” represented by her rival — those in favour of open trade, immigration and shared sovereignty — versus the “nationalists” who defend strong borders and national identities.

Voting began at 8am French time in 66,546 polling stations. Most will close at 7pm, except those in big cities which will stay open an hour longer.

Voter turnout at noon was measured at under 30 percent, less than the previous two elections at the same time, said the Interior Ministry.

A first estimate of the results will be published around 8pm.

“The political choice the French people are going to make is clear,” Le Pen said in her opening remarks during an often vicious debate between the pair on Wednesday night.

Le Pen voted in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont where she was greeted by members of feminist group Femen who unfurled an anti-Le Pen banner.

The last polling showed Macron — winner of last month's election first round — with a widening lead of around 62 percent to 38 percent before the hacking revelations on Friday evening. A campaigning blackout entered into force shortly after.

Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were dumped online and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at “democratic destabilisation.”

France's election authority said publishing the documents could be a criminal offence, a warning heeded by traditional media organizations but flouted by Macron's opponents and far-right activists online.

“We knew that there were these risks during the presidential campaign because it happened elsewhere. Nothing will go without a response,” French President Francois Hollande told AFP on Saturday.

Winds of change

US intelligence agencies believe state-backed Russian operatives were behind a massive hacking attack on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign ahead of America's presidential election last November.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the French hack, but the government and Macron's team previously accused the Kremlin of trying to meddle in the election — accusations denied in Moscow.

Whoever wins Sunday's vote it is set to cause profound change for France, the world's sixth-biggest economy, a permanent member of the UN security council and a global military power.

It is the first time neither of the country's traditional parties has a candidate in the final round of the presidential election under the modern French republic, founded in 1958.

Macron would be France's youngest-ever leader and was a virtual unknown three years ago when he was named economy minister, the launchpad for his sensational presidential bid.

He left Hollande's Socialist government in August and formed En Marche (On the Move), a political movement he says is neither of the left nor the right and which has attracted 250,000 members.

The ex-investment banker's programme pledges to cut state spending, ease labour laws, boost education in deprived areas and extend new protections to the self-employed.

He is also fervently pro-European and wants to re-energise the 28-member European Union, following Britain's referendum vote last summer to leave.

“France is not a closed country. We are in Europe and in the world,” Macron said during Wednesday's debate.

But Le Pen is hoping to spring a shock that would resonate as widely as Britain's decision to withdraw from the EU or the unexpected triumph of US President Donald Trump.

First round winners

National Front leader Le Pen sees herself as part of the same backlash against globalisation that has emerged as a powerful theme in the US and in recent ballots in Britain, Austria and the Netherlands.

She has pledged to organise a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU and wants to scrap the euro, which she has dubbed a “currency of bankers.”

She has also vowed to reduce net immigration to 10,000 people a year, crack down on outsourcing by multinationals, lower the retirement age and introduce hardline measures to tackle Islamic extremists.

Many voters still see her party as anti-Semitic and racist despite her six-year drive to improve its image.

Macron topped the first round of the presidential election on April 23 with 24.01 percent, followed by Le Pen on 21.30 percent, in a crowded field of 11 candidates.

The results revealed Macron was favoured among wealthier, better educated citizens in cities, while Le Pen drew support in the countryside as well as poverty-hit areas in the south and rustbelt northeast.

Voting for the run-off started for French voters in north America and some overseas territories on Saturday.

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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