The citizens of France will vote on Sunday in what is possibly the most important presidential election since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Not since the second World War has the extreme right been within reach of taking power here. France is one of only five countries that possess nuclear weapons and a seat on the UN Security Council.
Should Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, defeat incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, analysts say the shock would be comparable to the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.
Macron’s lead in polls has risen to up to 15 points, at 57.5 per cent to 42.5 per cent for Le Pen. Yet anxiety persists over the results, which will be announced at 8pm Paris time.
The election of a populist nationalist who is hostile to the EU and Nato and who is allied with the illiberal governments of Hungary and Poland would undermine western unity against Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. It would reverse integration in what is increasingly becoming a Macronian Europe, and could presage paralysis and unrest in the EU's second-most-populous country and second-largest economy.
In a rare attempt to influence voters, the leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal appealed to the French electorate to choose "the democratic candidate" on Sunday.
Whoever wins will face huge economic challenges. Deficit spending reached 6.5 per cent of GDP last year, and debt has risen to 112.9 per cent. It is unlikely that either candidate could finance campaign promises, which total €50 billion for Macron and €68 billion for Le Pen.
Le Pen promises to save €44 billion by stopping immigration, fighting fraud, reducing government running costs and reducing France’s contribution to the EU. Macron dismisses this as fantasy.
It is not certain that either candidate will win a majority in the “third round”, as legislative elections to follow in June are called. The newly elected president could be forced to “cohabit” with a hostile government. Forging a modicum of consensus may prove the greatest difficulty.
The far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won nearly 22 per cent of the vote in the first round on April 10th, this week called on the French to elect him as prime minister by giving his France Insoumise party a simple majority in June.
Disgruntled citizens on the far right and far left are already calling for a “social third round” in the streets; part of a deeply entrenched tradition. “Louis XVI, we cut off your head! Bourgeois, we can start again,” a handful of yellow vest protesters chanted outside a Macron rally on April 16th.
If Macron is re-elected and proceeds with plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65, mass protests are virtually a foregone conclusion.
Le Pen claimed Macron 'does not like the French' and constantly 'looked down on them, insulted them and treated them brutally'
On her last campaign trip to the northern department of Pas-de-Calais on Friday, Le Pen likened the raising of the retirement age to “a life sentence” and called it “a profound social injustice and an economic absurdity”.
Interviews, speeches, canvassing and polls were to end at midnight on Friday after a last burst of activity by the candidates.
Le Pen was particularly vituperative in interviews with the CNews television network and Europe1 radio station, both owned by the far-right billionaire Vincent Bolloré.
Le Pen said Macron “came down from Olympus for just a few days, more to insult his adversary than to present his programme”. She claimed Macron “does not like the French” and constantly “looked down on them, insulted them and treated them brutally. His whole term has been a succession of humiliating phrases for the French ... The way he behaved towards me [in a televised debate on Wednesday night] was precisely the way he treated the French for five years.”
Le Pen said Macron was “calling millions of French people extreme right” when he labels her as extreme right, “and that is an insult”.
Macron and Le Pen seem to embody a form of class warfare between two blocs referred to as “upper France” and “lower France”. Macron failed to redress social inequality, and his early measures favourable to big business and the wealthy earned him the unenviable title of “president of the rich”. Le Pen portrays herself as the would-be president of the poor. Many voters believe they are being forced to choose between arrogance and incompetence.
Macron earlier described himself as representing the “extreme centre”. He defined his brand of fusion politics on France Inter radio on Friday. “It’s a grouping of several political families,” Macron said. “Of social democracy, ecology, the centre and a right that is part Bonapartiste and part Orléaniste, and pro-European.”
It is far from certain that French listeners understood Macron’s historical references.
“Millions of our compatriots were drawn to [Le Pen’s] party because she gave the impression she had the answer to their cost-of-living problems,” Macron said. Fuel prices in France have risen 40 per cent in one year, and the war in Ukraine is likely to create further price rises and shortages.
Macron said that the RN “fed on the things which I did not succeed in doing”. He regretted not having been able to “calm certain types of anger, react quickly enough to demands and, in particular, give the French popular and middle classes the prospect of progress and security”.
More than a quarter of French voters abstained on April 10th, the largest percentage in 20 years. Political scientists predict the higher the abstention rate, the narrower the margin will be between Macron and Le Pen. “Nothing is certain,” Macron said, in the hope of encouraging citizens to vote.