France’s presidential election has revealed a nation drifting toward the political extremes, with more than half of voters picking far-left or far-right candidates in the first round on April 10. The result sets up a tense endgame in which President Emmanuel Macron will face off against Marine Le Pen, a longtime admirer of Russia’s Vladimir Putin who wants to pull the European Union’s only nuclear power out of NATO’s integrated command structure and ban Muslim women from wearing the veil in public. A Le Pen victory would strike at the heart of Europe’s post-war liberal consensus. If Macron prevails, he’d be the first incumbent to do so since Jacques Chirac 20 years ago.
Macron won most votes in the first round and surveys still show him beating Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party and daughter of anti-immigrant firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her campaign gained momentum recently with a pledge to help working families cope with soaring energy and food prices. Macron beat her comfortably at the last election in 2017 thanks to millions of voters switching allegiance from other mainstream candidates. Since then, support for the old established parties has declined. Meanwhile, Le Pen is likely to pick up votes from defeated far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and ultra-right former media pundit Eric Zemmour, who came third and fourth respectively in the first round. Surveys put Macron’s vote share in the second round on April 24 at between 51% and 54%, way below the 66% he got in 2017.