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The French go to the polls Sunday for the first round of presidential elections. Centrist President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen are expected to be the two top vote-getters who would then qualify for a second round in two weeks.
That would be the same pairing as in 2017, when Macron easily defeated Le Pen. But some analysts are now predicting it could be much closer this time.
“The majority of French people want a change,” Christian Malard, a leading French political analyst and commentator for I24 News, said.
Macron’s handling of COVID-19 and his Ukrainian diplomacy haven’t helped him overcome real unpopularity. A reform-minded technocrat, he’s been dogged by the “aloof” label for years. The 2018 “Yellow vest” street protests were all about claims Macron did not understand the problems of the populace.
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“Many people feel abandoned and scorned by him,” Malard observed.
For her part, Le Pen has “sanded off” some of her “harder edges” on issues like immigration and Islam, Malard said. She is targeting more “kitchen table” issues like inflation hitting France as elsewhere strongly. It also doesn’t hurt that the French electorate has moved to the right.
“She has succeeded to soften a bad image,” according to Malard.
One late poll puts Macron at just 51% to Le Pen’s 49% in a possible runoff, within the margin of error.
France’s economy is the second largest in the European Union, it is the only EU member with nuclear weapons, and it has one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
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What would a Le Pen presidency mean for France’s relations with the world? It certainly wouldn’t help things with the European Union. She has long been a critic of Brussels and would align with other far-right leaders in Europe, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
As for America’s “oldest” foreign alliance? “I think she would be tougher on the U.S.,” Malard said. “She was always on the side of Trump.”
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Still, the French have a habit of casting a “protest vote” in the first round of presidential elections and then “holding their nose” and going for the safe choice in the second round. That would point to another five-year term for Macron.
Judging by past meetings, that’s probably a result President Biden would be satisfied with. At the age of 44, Macron certainly would be ready for it. In a bit more than two weeks we’ll see if France is.