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A woman passes posters of candidates as French citizens arrive to cast their vote in the presidential election at the Lycée Français in New York City on April 09, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: Voting booths opened on Sunday morning in France in a tight race between Emmanuel Macron and nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.

French elections often throw up surprising twists, and this one didn’t disappoint - an early belief the vote would be a repeat of 2017, when Macron faced Le Pen and easily won, was upturned by the candidacy of far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour in November and the conservative Republicains party’s first ever female presidential contender, Valerie Pecresse, in December, both of whom initially shot up in polls.

But their campaigns fizzled out, largely to the benefit of Le Pen, who just this past week got a powerful tailwind while Macron’s support dropped. According to the last published polls, voter support for Le Pen in a runoff would be within a few percentage points of Macron. It now looks far from certain that he will stay in the Elysee.

Macron, 44, has been a complacent campaigner, banking on the idea that war and instability favour the incumbent and that his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recovery would be enough to return him to office without much of a fight. Over the past six months, he focused on US and European efforts to first avert and then stop a war in Ukraine, speaking regularly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and meeting with western allies.

For a while, polls suggested the strategy was working. But, Le Pen stuck to her focus on retail politics, travelling up and down the country talking to voters about the impact of the conflict on their wallets. She pitched the race as a battle of David versus Goliath, stoking the perception of Macron as a “president of the rich” who can’t understand the struggles of ordinary people to cope with surging food and energy costs.

On her third attempt to clinch France’s top job, Le Pen has become a familiar face and for some at least, a less scary one, even though analysts say her views haven’t changed that much. Her longstanding strategy to appear more moderate was helped indirectly by Zemmour’s doom-laden public rants on immigration and identity.

By April 8, Macron was ahead by just 3.5 points in the first round, according a polling average calculated by Bloomberg a lead that tumbled from as much as a dozen points a month earlier.

Macron has spent the past week trying to close the gap with a series of last-minute media appearances, including one on Friday night, hours before presidential hopefuls were required by law to stop campaigning. In the interview with media outlet Brut, he discussed issues ranging from education and ecology to foreign affairs and religion, but dwelt most economic inequalities and purchasing power, topics Le Pen owned on the stump.

People close to the president, including Edouard Philippe, a former prime minister in Macron’s government, are warning that Le Pen stands a good chance of winning. Investors are also taking that scenario seriously, and badly. Holders of French debt have been dumping it, pushing benchmark yields up to as high as 1.25 per cent, a level last seen in 2015. That took the spread over their German equivalents - a measure of investors’ perception of risk - to the widest since March 2020, the onset of the pandemic.

If Le Pen were to topple Macron, an ardent defender of the European project, it would be a shock for the European Union possibly on a par with Donald Trump’s US election victory and the Brexit vote in 2016. She could bring the bloc to a halt with a veto on most EU initiatives. Her win would cap the advance of the far-right in France, pointing the country on a nationalist, nativist path.

But for that to happen, Le Pen would still have to build an anyone-but-Macron coalition in the second round on April 24 and many left-wing voters would have to abstain, or back her.

In the end, enough voters may turn up just to block Le Pen that Macron gets returned to office. If that were the case, he could be left with a weak mandate that could make it difficult to implement his economic and social reforms, depending on the outcome of legislative elections scheduled for June. Le Pen on the otherhand would likely emerge empowered.

There’s one more contestant to watch in this race: Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. On his third shot at the presidency, he’s polling after Le Pen, and could convince left-wing voters to rally behind him on Sunday.