French polls: Macron, far-right rival Le Pen to eye runoff – The Denver Post

By JOHN LEICESTER and THOMAS ADAMSON

PARIS (AP) — French polling agencies projected Sunday that incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen are heading for another winner-takes-all runoff in the French presidential election, with their fierce political rivalry and sharply opposing visions pulling clear of a crowded field of 12 candidates in the first round of voting.

If confirmed by official vote counts expected later Sunday night, the pollsters’ initial projections mean France is teeing up for a repeat of the 2017 head-to-head contest that put Macron into power — but there is no guarantee that this time the outcome will be the same.

Macron, a 44-year-old political centrist, won by a landslide five years ago to become France’s youngest president. But Macron is bracing for a far tougher runoff battle this time against his 53-year-old political nemesis who is promising seismic shifts for France — both domestically and internationally — if elected as the country’s first woman president.

The projections showed both Macron and Le Pen on course to improve on their 2017 first-round showings, signaling how French leadership politics have increasingly become polarized. The projections showed Macron with a comfortable first-round lead of between 27%-to-29% support, ahead of Le Pen, who is expected to capture 23%-to-24% of the vote. The projections showed hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon — one of half a dozen candidates on the left — falling short of the runoff, heading for third place.

The election’s result will impact Europe’s direction as it tries to contain the havoc wreaked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

France’s April 24 presidential runoff appears set to pit the centrist president seeking to modernize the economy and strengthen European cooperation against the nationalist Le Pen, who has sought to soften her party’s racist reputation. Le Pen this time tapped into the foremost issue on many French voters’ minds: living costs that have soared amid the disruptions of war in Ukraine and the economic repercussions of western sanctions on Russia.

Pollsters suggest that just a few percentage points could separate the familiar foes in the second-round vote. That nail-biting scenario sets up a runoff campaign likely to be far more confrontational and volatile than during round one, which was largely overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

With its potential to reshape France’s post-war identity, the election has wide international significance. A Macron victory would be seen as a defeat for European populists. It might also not be cheered in the Kremlin: Macron has strongly backed European Union sanctions on Russia, while Le Pen has worried publicly about their impact on French living standards.

Le Pen gave a little wink Sunday as she dropped the blue envelope containing her choice into a ballot box in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont. Afterward, she said “given the situation in the country and in the world,” Sunday’s election outcome could determine “not only the next five years, but probably the next 50 years” in France.

In the 27-member EU, only France has a nuclear arsenal and a U.N. Security Council veto. As Putin keeps up his military’s assault on Ukraine, French power is helping to shape the European response. Macron is the only leading French presidential candidate who fully supports the NATO military alliance.

Macron and his wife, Brigitte, voted together in the seaside resort of Le Touquet, making their choices in voting booths covered by curtains of blue, white and red — the colors of the French flag.

France operates a low-tech voting system, unchanged for generations, with paper ballots cast in person and hand-counted.

Macron for months looked like a shoo-in to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term. But National Rally leader Le Pen ate into his polling lead in the campaign’s closing stages, as the pain of rising gas, food and energy prices became a dominant election theme for many low-income households.

Macron’s win over Le Pen in 2017 to become France’s youngest modern president was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics, coming in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, both in 2016.

To beat Le Pen in a runoff, the 44-year-old president will need to pick apart her years-long rebranding effort to make herself seem more pragmatic and less extreme, a makeover that has including showing off her love of cats. Macron has accused Le Pen of pushing an extremist manifesto of racist and ruinous policies. Le Pen wants to ban Muslim headscarves in French streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.

Her softer image won over some voters but made others even more suspicious.

Yves Maillot, a retired engineer, said he voted for Macron only to try to counterbalance Le Pen. He said he fears that her long-standing hostility to the EU could see her try to take France out of the bloc, even though she’s dropped that from her manifesto.

“I don’t think she’s changed at all,” he said. “It’s the same thing, but with cats.”

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Elaine Ganley, Sylvie Corbet and Patrick Hermansen in Paris contributed

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Follow all AP stories on France’s presidential election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022

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