France’s Future Course Hangs In Balance Of Presidential Election
Voters in France cast their ballots on May 7 in a tense presidential election that could determine whether the country embraces its status as a leading member of the European Union or moves on the path to a "Frexit."
The runoff vote comes after a divisive race marked by negative campaigning and a last-minute hacking attack targeting Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister and investment banker who has never held an elected post.
Macron, a 39-year-old centrist who topped the first round of the election on April 23, has campaigned on a pro-EU platform while anti-immigration nationalist Marine Le Pen, 48, wants France to leave the 28-nation bloc and abandon the euro currency.
Voting began at 8 a.m. in more than 66,000 polling stations. Most will close at 7 p.m., except some in big cities, which will stay open an hour longer.
Macron voted in the coastal town of Le Tourquet in northern France alongside his wife, Brigitte Macron.
Le Pen, who is looking to post a surprise victory that would come on the heels of Britain's decision to leave the European Union and U.S. President Donald Trump's shock win in November, cast her ballot in Henin-Beaumont, a small northern town controlled by her National Front party.
She was able to vote without any incident after feminist activists were briefly detained a few hours earlier for hanging a big anti-Le Pen banner from a church.
Turnout stood at 28.23 percent at midday on May 7, down from 30.66 percent at the same point in the 2012 presidential ballot, the Interior Ministry said.
The election is the culmination of a polarizing campaign in which Le Pen has portrayed Macron as an elitist who is soft on Islamic fundamentalism and other potential threats to her vision of the French state.
"Le Pen's only strategy is to harm Macron, to paint [him] as a globalist candidate whose political approach and policies are dangerous for France," Martin Michelot, deputy director of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, told RFE/RL.
Macron has enjoyed a lead in opinion polls since the first round of the presidential election on April 23, with the former investment banker holding a 62 percent to 38 percent lead over his rival in the polls on May 5 -- the last day of campaigning.
"As a matter of fact, the polls haven't moved that much, which indicates the fact that Marine Le Pen has never been able to...impose her themes in the campaign,... the themes that would carry voters towards her," Michelot said.
Belgium's Le Soir daily reported on May 7 that Macron had an overwhelming lead at polling stations located in France's overseas territories and in the United States.
Macron called Le Pen "the high priestess of fear" at a fiery May 3 debate between the candidates in Paris that the daily Le Monde labeled "brutal" and "violent from start to finish."
Accused of being overly emotional during the debate, Le Pen told RTL radio that "my words were nothing but the reflection of the anger that will explode in this country."
Macron countered: "Madame Le Pen speaks for no one. Madame Le Pen exploits anger and hatred."
In a sign of how high tensions were running on voting day, the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris, where Macron was due to speak after the polls close on May 7, was briefly evacuated after a suspect bag was found.
Police said they made security checks of the area as a precaution and later added that the situation there had returned to normal.
Le Pen, the head of the National Front party founded by her father, has advocated abandoning the euro for the French franc, saying the euro is "the currency of bankers, it's not the people's currency."
Macron called his opponent's euro policy "the big nonsense of Marine Le Pen's program."
While differing on almost every domestic policy, the two candidates also have very divergent views on foreign policy.
"Le Pen would want to have a much closer cooperation with Russia on fighting terrorism in the Middle East and also...would reopen lines of political negotiation with Iran which, for example, goes completely counter to the goals of the United States...[and] could lead to a clash with the United States and President [Donald] Trump," said Michelot.
"[She] would want to take France out of NATO's military command and she would largely put an end to the French military operations in Africa."
Macron's foreign policy would largely be a continuation of the course set by current President Francois Hollande, a Socialist in whose government Macron served as economy minister from 2014 to 2016.
"Macron is a politician who has never in his career dealt with [foreign policy] issues...so you can expect lots of predictability on the Macron team," Michelot said, ticking off a list of EU points of emphasis vis-A�-vis security and Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine and continuing support of separatists there prompted Western sanctions: "the same strong position on Russia, the importance of respecting the Minsk agreements, on not recognizing the illegal annexation of Crimea," and a strong commitment to NATO.
He added that if Le Pen wins the election, "you would have a France that is more shriveled up on itself...which would largely take France outside the liberal world order in which Macron believes."
Since the first round of the election -- in which Macron edged Le Pen by 24 percent to 21.3 percent -- the leader of the En Marche! (Forward!) political party has accused Russia of meddling in his election campaign with cyberattacks and has refused to accredit Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik, accusing them of issuing fake news stories.
On May 5, Macron's campaign said it had been the target of a "massive" computer hack that dumped its campaign e-mails online 1 1/2 days before voters were due to go to the polls.
The documents were spread on social media just before midnight on May 5 in what Macron's team said was an attempt at "democratic destabilization, like that seen during the last presidential campaign in the United States."
Moscow has rejected accusations of interfering in the election campaign, as it has rejected similar charges out of Berlin and Washington.
Le Pen, whose National Front party received a multimillion-dollar loan from a Russian bank in 2014, has defended Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and has met several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- most recently in Moscow in late March.
Macron has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of French politicians, many European leaders, and by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Though claiming not to have endorsed her, Trump has called Le Pen the "strongest on borders, and she's the strongest on what's been going on in France."
Polls showed some 18 percent of French voters were still undecided in the days leading up to the May 7 election.
On May 5, dozens of students protested outside of 10 high schools in Paris, holding signs that read, "Neither Le Pen nor Macron, neither the fatherland nor the boss," a reference to the nationalist stances of Le Pen and the pro-business Macron.
The French president is elected to a five-year term. There are nearly 48 million eligible voters and turnout is expected to be high, as 77.8 percent of the voters cast ballots in the first round.
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