Tuesday, February 7

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on track to advance to French presidential runoff, data shows

Macron, France’s current president, appears poised to take 28.6% of the votes, putting him in first place, according to an analysis conducted by pollster Ifop-Fiducial for French broadcasters TF1 and LCI. Le Pen, a long-time standard-bearer for the French far-right, is on track to come in second with 23.6%.

Twelve candidates ran for the top job. If none of them receives more than 50% of the ballots, the top two will face each other in a runoff on April 24. But a second round is all but guaranteed — no French presidential candidate has ever won in the first round under the current system.

The contest was marked by voter apathy, according to Ifop-Fiducial. Voter participation was estimated at 73.3%, the lowest in a first round in 20 years. While Macron appears on track to win the first round, he is a polarizing figure whose approval rating has lagged during his first term.

Macron urged voters to come out for the second round in a speech after the polls closed.

“Nothing is settled and the debate that we will have in the coming 15 days is decisive for our country and our Europe,” he said. “I don’t want a France which, having left Europe, would have as its only allies the international populists and xenophobes. That is not us. I want a France faithful to humanism, to the spirit of enlightenment,” he said.

Macron is seeking to become the first French president to win reelection since Jacques Chirac in 2002. While polls have given him a consistent edge over the field, the race tightened significantly in the past month.

Le Pen’s support has steadily risen in recent weeks. Though she is best known for her far-right policies such as drastically restricting immigration and banning Muslim headscarves in public places, she has run a more mainstream campaign this time around, softening her language and focusing more on pocketbook issues like the rising cost of living, a top concern for the French electorate.

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In her speech Sunday, Le Pen vowed to be a president for “all the French” if she wins the second round, and called on those who didn’t vote for Macron to support her in the second round.

Marine Le Pen addresses her supporters on Sunday after the first round of the French presidential election.

In third place was leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon with 20.1%. Melenchon enjoyed a late surge in support and was considered a possible dark horse candidate to challenge Macron.

No other candidate received more than 10% of the vote, according to the analysis. Far-right political commentator turned presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who enjoyed a seat among the top three candidates until March according to Ifop polling, came in fourth at 7%.

The candidates on track to lose have quickly begun throwing their support behind the top two. While Zemmour urged his backers to vote for Le Pen, the others have urged their backers to steer clear of her.

Melenchon told his supporters that “we must not give a single vote to Mrs. Le Pen,” and the candidates from the traditional center-left and center-right parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, have already backed Macron.

The socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, said a Le Pen victory would instill in France “a hatred of everyone set against everyone,” while the Republican, Valerie Pecresse, said she was sincerely worried for the country because “the far right has never been so close to winning.”

“The project of Marine Le Pen will open France to discord, impotence, and collapse,” said Pecresse.

The rematch

Surveys ahead of the race showed that a second round of Macron vs. Le Pen was the most likely outcome. Macron handily beat Le Pen five years ago, but experts have said that a second contest between the two would be much tighter than the 2017 race.

Macron is no longer a political upstart and must run on a mixed record. While his ambitious plan to bolster the European Union’s autonomy and geopolitical heft won him respect abroad and at home, he remains a divisive figure when it comes to domestic policies. His handling of the yellow vest movement, one of France’s most prolonged protests in decades, was widely panned, and his record on the Covid-19 pandemic is inconclusive.

Macron’s signature policy during the crisis — requiring people to show proof of vaccination to go about their lives as normal — helped increase vaccination rates but fired up a vocal minority against his presidency.

France's President Emmanuel Macron (center), next to his wife Brigitte Macron (left), speaks to a resident before voting for the first round of the presidential election on Sunday.

Macron has, so far, done very little campaigning. Experts believe his strategy was to avoid the political mudslinging as long as possible to brandish his image as the most presidential of all the candidates. Polling showed him consistently leading all candidates, and he was considered a shoo-in to make the second round.

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Polling by Ifop-Fiducial released Sunday showed that Macron would win a second-round contest against Le Pen by just 51% to 49%.

“The widespread dissatisfaction with Macron (especially among the young) means that the outcome is uncertain and unpredictable. Le Pen will continue to exploit this, and a major political upset therefore remains possible,” said CNN European affairs commentator Dominic Thomas of the potential second round matchup.

“However much they may dislike Le Pen, there is a world of difference between her and Macron, and how she would disrupt European and global politics.”

Le Pen has tried to portray herself as a very different candidate to the one who lost handily to Macron in 2017, when she attempted to position herself to the forgotten French working classes as her country’s answer to then-US President Donald Trump. While her economic nationalist stance, views on immigration, euroskepticism and positions on Islam in France are unchanged, Le Pen has sought to broaden her appeal.

The contest was at first predicted to be a referendum on the dominance of the extreme right in French politics, but the war in Ukraine — another key issue for voters — upended the race.

Macron has kept a grip on first place in most polls ahead of the election this year. Ifop polling found that his support peaked in early March, as potential voters rallied around the flag and rewarded the president for his attempts to mediate the conflict in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion, even if it was a failure.

Many experts also expected the war to hurt the Le Pen, who had been a a vocal admirer of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader who has become a pariah in the West due to the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine in late February. Le Pen visited the Russian president during her 2017 campaign, but this time around, she was forced to scrap a leaflet with a photo of her and Putin from that trip after Russia’s unprovoked attack on its neighbor.

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Thomas, the CNN European affairs commentator, explained that the forthcoming debates will be crucial if Macron is to convince voters that Le Pen’s previous support for Putin should disqualify her.

“He will be vulnerable on a range of domestic issues, but she will have difficulty convincing the electorate of her foreign policy credentials, especially given her longstanding links with Russia,” he said.

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