France’s Turbulent Presidential Campaign Ends With Stark Choice

  • Centrist Macron seen as front-runner in runoff against Le Pen
  • Le Pen’s team downplays expectations ahead of polling day

For just a day on Saturday, French voters get a break from an election campaign that has been marked by scandal, vitriol and terrorism before it’s time to choose whether the centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron will be their new president. Or Marine Le Pen will get a chance to lead the retreat from Europe she’s demanding.

Rallies, interviews and opinion polls are all legally banned from midnight Friday, to give voters time to think about their decision. Voting in the runoff starts in mainland France Sunday at 8 a.m. local time, and results will be released starting at 8 p.m.

Independent Macron, 39, and far-right nationalist Le Pen, 48, knocked out both the Socialist Party and the center-right Republicans in the April 23 first round -- defeating establishment parties which had governed France ever since Charles de Gaulle ushered in the Fifth Republic in 1958.

For an hour-by-hour guide to polling day, click here

While opinion polls credit Macron with a 24-point lead, investors are following the campaign closely since a Le Pen upset could reverse 60 years of European integration. She has threatened to quit the “dead” euro, denounced “savage globalization,” and promised a clampdown on immigration as well as new barriers to protect French workers.

A Macron win would sweep the country’s youngest-ever president into the Elysee Palace, and show France refusing to ride the populist wave of Brexit and Donald Trump. The former economy minister argues France can thrive in a globalized world, with a reformed European Union helping to foster growth, control immigration and counter terrorism.

“The French are torn between voting for a break with the past and with the establishment, which means Le Pen, and the desire to preserve what they have, which means keeping the euro and voting Macron,” said Dominique Reynie, professor of politics at the Sciences Po institute in Paris. “In the first round on April 23, the nine populist candidates scored just over 49 percent -- France is very angry.”

Trump Tweets

Le Pen already posted her party’s biggest-ever vote in the first ballot. The two rivals’ scores highlighted the divisions running through the country. Le Pen conquered the depressed towns of industrial decline in the north and east, and the conservative heartlands of the south. Macron won the west with middle- and upper-class voters backing him in big towns and cities.

The Macron team said in a statement late Friday that it had been the victim of a “massive” cyber attack and that its documents have been distributed via social networks. The campaign said the activities shown by its documents are completely legal.

Le Pen’s top aide Florian Philippot responded to the leak on Twitter.

“Will the #Macronleaks uncover things that investigative journalism has deliberately killed?” Philippot said.

Macron made a faltering start to the second-round campaign. After Le Pen flagged her support for workers with a surprise visit to a Whirlpool Corp. plant in his northern birthplace of Amiens, Macron turned up to be booed and whistled at, though he stayed to talk to workers at length.

Obama Endorsement

But Macron won the upper hand in Wednesday’s televised debate, their only one-to-one confrontation and the most brutal in the country’s modern history. Two-thirds of respondents in an Elabe survey rated Macron as the winner of the clash despite Le Pen’s attempts to paint him as the candidate of the capitalist elite, and a friend to terrorists. Macron retorted she was unfit to govern and called her “the high priestess of fear-mongering.”

As Le Pen’s party began to acknowledge that she may be headed for defeat -- her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a National Front lawmaker, said a 40 percent score would be “an enormous victory” -- another, former, U.S. president got involved three days before the runoff. Barack Obama posted a video on Macron’s website saying he was “rooting” for him.

Obama praised Macron as someone who “appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.”

President Donald Trump weighed in earlier in the race after a French man shot dead a policeman and injured another on Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue on Apr. 20, saying it would “probably help” Le Pen.

She is “strongest on borders and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” Trump said on Twitter. Macron came top in the first round with 24 percent of the vote, against 21 percent for the nationalist.

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