France began voting in a second round of presidential elections on Sunday with repercussions for Europe’s future, with centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron favored but facing a stiff challenge from far-right rival Marine Le Pen.

The centrist Macron is asking voters to trust him for a second five-year term despite a presidency preoccupied with protests, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. A victory for Macron in this vote would make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.

The outcome of the vote in France, a nuclear-armed nation and one of the world’s largest economies, could also affect the conflict in Ukraine, as France has played a key role in diplomatic efforts and support for sanctions against Russia.

Le Pen’s support in France’s electorate has grown to its highest level ever seen this campaign, and much will depend on how many turn out to vote on Sunday. Many of those expected to elect Macron do so to keep out Le Pen and ideas considered too extreme and undemocratic, such as his plan to ban the Muslim headscarf in public, or his ties to Russia.

Left-wing voters a wild card

Both candidates are trying to woo the 7.7 million votes left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was defeated on the first ballot.

For many who voted for left-wing candidates in the first round on April 10, this runoff represents an unpleasant choice between a nationalist in Le Pen and a president who some say has veered to the right during his first term. . The outcome could depend on how left-wing voters decide: between supporting Macron or abstaining and letting him fend for himself against Le Pen.

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All opinion polls in recent days converge towards a victory for the 44-year-old pro-European centrist; however, the margin over his 53-year-old nationalist rival varies widely, from 6 to 15 percentage points, according to the poll. Polls also predict a possibly record number of people who will cast a blank ballot or not vote at all.

Earlier this week, Macron took up the gloves in a two-hour, 45-minute debate, his last of the campaign, attacking his far-right opponent as he seeks the votes he needs to win.

Le Pen has sought to appeal to working-class voters struggling with rising prices amid the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, an approach even Macron acknowledged has found resonance with the general public. She said lowering the cost of living would be her priority if she were elected as France’s first female president, and she cast herself as the candidate of voters who can’t make ends meet.

She says Macron’s presidency has left the country deeply divided. She has repeatedly referred to the so-called gilets jaunes protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies that some thought hurt the poorest. .

Many Muslims voted for the extreme left

France’s presidential campaign has been especially challenging for voters of immigrant descent and religious minorities. Polls suggest that much of France’s Muslim population, the largest in Western Europe, voted for far-left candidates in the first round, so their voice could be decisive.

Macron has also touted his environmental and climate achievements in a bid to attract young voters popular with far-left candidates. Citizens and especially millennials voted en masse for Mélenchon. Many young voters are particularly committed to climate issues.

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A man casts his vote in the second round of the French presidential election in Marseille, southern France, on Sunday. (AP)

Although Macron was associated with the slogan “Make the planet great again,” in his first five-year term, he capitulated to angry yellow vest protesters by scrapping a tax hike on fuel prices. Macron has said his next prime minister will be in charge of environmental planning as France seeks to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Le Pen, once considered a climate change skeptic, wants to scrap renewable energy subsidies. He promised to decommission wind farms and invest in nuclear and hydroelectric power.

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