Tense France picks new president in landmark vote

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Paris (AFP) – France went to the polls Sunday to choose between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen for president, in a watershed election both for the divided country and the future of Europe.

The election follows a rollercoaster campaign marked by mudslinging, scandals and a last-minute hacking attack targeting Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister and banker who has never held elected office.

The run-off vote pits the pro-Europe, pro-business Macron against anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen, two radically different visions that underline a split in Western democracies.

Le Pen, 48, has portrayed the ballot as a contest between “globalists” like Macron who support free trade and immigration and “patriots” who defend national borders and identities.

She is hoping to spring a shock win that would resonate as widely as Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union or the unexpected victory of US President Donald Trump.

Macron, who topped the first round of the election on April 23, is the runaway favourite however, with polls giving him a lead of over 20 points over Le Pen.

  • ‘World is watching’ –

“The world is watching,” said 32-year-old marketing worker Marie Piot as she voted in a working-class part of northwest Paris.

“After Brexit and Trump, it’s as if we are the last bastion of the Enlightenment,” she said.

Le Pen cast her ballot in her northern stronghold of Henin-Beaumont, where bare-breasted Femen activists climbed scaffolding on a church and unfurled a banner reading: “Power for Marine, despair for Marianne,” referring to the symbol of France.

Macron and his wife Brigitte voted in the northern seaside resort of Le Touquet where they have a holiday home.

They later travelled to Paris to see in the results. 

In a sign of the security jitters caused by a string of jihadist attacks since 2015, the square outside the Louvre Museum, where Macron will hold a victory party if elected, was evacuated on Sunday afternoon.

A spokesman for Macron’s En Marche (On The Move) movement said a suspicious package had been found. A police source said the area had been cordoned off “simply to banish any doubts.”

Outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande, who decided in December against seeking re-election, cast his ballot in his former electoral fiefdom of Tulle, in central France.

Hollande, who plucked Macron from virtual obscurity to name him economy minister in 2014, said voting “is always an important, significant act, heavy with consequences”.

Turnout stood at 28.2 percent at midday, down from 30.7 percent at the same point in the last presidential election in 2012, the interior ministry said.

Most polling stations close at 1700 GMT, but those in big cities will stay open an hour longer. First estimated results will be published at 1800 GMT.

  • ‘Democratic destabilisation’ –

The last polls showed Macron extending his lead to around 62 percent to 38 percent for Le Pen after a bruising TV debate in which Macron was seen as the hands-down winner.

The hacking revelations surfaced on Friday evening, just before the end of campaigning.

Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were dumped online and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, in what the candidate called an attempt at “democratic destabilisation”.

France’s election authority said publishing the documents could be a criminal offence, a warning heeded by traditional media organisations but flouted by Macron’s opponents and far-right activists online.

  • No traditional parties –

Whoever wins Sunday’s vote, it is set to cause profound change for France, the world’s sixth-biggest economy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a global military power.

It is the first time neither of the country’s traditional parties has a candidate in the final round of the presidential election under the modern French republic, founded in 1958.

Macron would be France’s youngest-ever president and was a virtual unknown before his two-year stint as economy minister, the launchpad for his presidential bid.

He left the Socialist government in August and formed his movement that he says is neither of the left nor the right and which has attracted 250,000 members.

Macron campaigned on pledges to ease labour laws, boost education in deprived areas and extend new protections to the self-employed.

He is also fervently pro-European and wants to re-energise the soon-to-be 27-member European Union, following Britain’s referendum vote last June to leave.

“France is not a closed country. We are in Europe and in the world,” Macron said in the debate with Le Pen on Wednesday. 

  • Backlash against globalisation –

National Front leader Le Pen sees herself as part of the same backlash against globalisation that has emerged as a powerful theme in the United States and in recent elections in Britain, Austria and the Netherlands.

She has pledged to organise a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU and wants to scrap the euro, which she has dubbed a “currency of bankers”.

Le Pen has also vowed to reduce net immigration to 10,000 people a year, crack down on outsourcing by multinationals, lower the retirement age and introduce hardline measures to tackle Islamist extremists.

Many voters still see her party as xenophobic despite her six-year drive to improve its image.

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    <figure><figcaption>Presidential election candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have radically different visions for France 
        <span>Copyright POOL/AFP Eric FEFERBERG, ALAIN JOCARD</span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/bd4ee1a563fbc1b9749e68b131092bbc9442ea6a-7.jpg" width="768" height="502"><figcaption>French presidential election
        <span>Copyright AFP Paz PIZARRO, Thomas SAINT-CRICQ</span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/0623c85f3d6a505497d9dc9d41791520810cbc8d.jpg" width="768" height="488"><figcaption>The 2017 French presidential election marks the first time in modern France that traditional parties do not have a candidate in the final round 
        <span>Copyright AFP FRED TANNEAU</span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/7629d8b5bc5cc4fb5f6fa6ee446048f8d70f6307.jpg" width="768" height="511"><figcaption>Most polling stations in France close at 1700 GMT, with big cities open an hour longer. First results are expected at 1800 GMT
        <span>Copyright AFP ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT</span>
      </figcaption></figure>