PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron faced a tough test on Sunday as he seeks re-election in a vote that is expected to produce a close duel with far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Some 48.7 million voters were eligible to vote in the election after an unusual campaign overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which analysts said could lead to unpredictable results, especially if the rate turnout is low.
Early indications showed mid-afternoon turnout was more than four percentage points lower than the same stage in 2017, indicating turnout could be the lowest since 2002, when a record number of French people stayed away.
Polls predict Macron will edge Le Pen by a handful of percentage points in the first round, with the top two advancing to the second round on April 24.
Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is hot on their heels in third place and is still imagining his chances of reaching the second round at the expense of Le Pen or even – in what would be an extraordinary upheaval – Macron himself.
Macron voted in Le Touquet on the northern coast of France, accompanied by his wife Brigitte, around noon.
Le Pen voted in Hénin-Beaumont, also in the north of the country, while Mélenchon voted in the southern port city of Marseille.
Despite her opponents accusing her of being an extremist bent on dividing society, Le Pen has sought with some success to project a more moderate image and care about everyday voter worries such as rising prices.
Macron, by contrast, campaigned relatively little, by his own admission, entering the campaign trail later than he would have liked due to the war in Ukraine.
French television channels will broadcast projections of the final results, usually very precise, as soon as the polls close at 6:00 p.m. GMT.
If Macron and Le Pen reach the second round as expected, analysts predict their clash will be much closer than in 2017, when the current president beat his rival with 66% of the vote.
“There is uncertainty,” said political scientist Pascal Perrineau, pointing to the high number of voters still undecided or who changed their minds during the campaign, as well as absent voters.
According to the Home Office, turnout stood at 65% as of 1500 GMT with three hours of voting remaining, down 4.4 percentage points from the figure at the same time in 2017.
Pollsters predict final turnout would also be down sharply from 2017, though likely higher than the record first-round turnout of just under 73% in 2002.
In the Paris suburb of Pantin, Blandine Lehout, a 32-year-old actress, said none of the candidates deserved her vote.
“For the first time in my life, I’m not going to vote,” she said. “I will vote in the legislative elections (in June), but in this election, I hate them all. We are at a stage where they scare me.
But Michèle Monnier, 77, got up early to vote: “The women of my generation fought for the right to vote so whatever the election I will vote.”
The stakes are high for Macron, who came to power at 39 as France’s youngest president with a promise to shake up the country.
He would be the first French president to win a second term since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
If he does, he would have five more years to push through reforms that would include raising the retirement age from 62 to 65, despite union resistance.
He would also seek to consolidate his place as number one among European leaders after the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A victory for Le Pen would be seen as a triumph for right-wing populism, adding to last weekend’s election victories for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic, both of whom enjoy cordial ties to the president. Russian Vladimir Putin.
Candidates from France’s mainstream parties, the right-wing Republicans and left-wing Socialists, face a debacle if the polls prove accurate.
Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans and the socialist candidate at half mast Anne Hidalgo seem certain to be ejected in the first round, as does the candidate of the Greens Yannick Jadot.
Former far-right TV pundit Eric Zemmour burst into the campaign last year but has since lost ground, and analysts say he actually helped Le Pen by making her appear more moderate.