Exit polls are projecting Emmanuel Macron will retain the French presidency.
Polling agencies Opinionway, Harris and Ifop indicated the centrist incumbent will secure between 57 and 59.5 per cent of the vote, with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen behind on between 41.5 and 43 per cent.
Earlier on Sunday, France started voting in a presidential run-off election with repercussions for Europe’s future, with the centrist incumbent the front runner who was nonetheless facing a tough challenge from Ms Le Pen.
Cheers of joy erupted as the results appeared on a giant screen at the Champ de Mars park at the foot of the Eiffel tower, where Macron supporters waved French and EU flags.
People hugged each other and chanted “Macron”.
In contrast, a gathering of dejected Le Pen supporters erupted in boos and whistles at a sprawling reception hall on the outskirts of Paris.
Le Pen admitted defeat but vowed to keep up the fight, with the June parliamentary elections in mind. “I will never abandon the French,” she said to supporters chanting “Marine! Marine!”
The first pollsters’ projections showed Macron securing about 57-58 per cent of the vote.
Such estimates are normally accurate but may be fine-tuned as official results come in from around the country throughout the evening.
But Macron can expect little to no grace period after many, especially on the left, only voted for him reluctantly to block the far-right from winning.
Protests that marred part of his first mandate could erupt again quite quickly, as he tries to press on with pro-business reforms.
“We will not spoil the victory... but [Le Pen’s] National Rally has its highest score ever,” health minister Olivier Veran told BFM TV.
“There will be continuity in government policy because the president has been re-elected. But we have also heard the French people’s message,” he added, pledging change.
Mr Macron had asked voters to trust him for a second five-year term despite a presidency troubled by protests, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. A Macron victory will make him the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.
The result of voting in France, a nuclear-armed nation with one of the world’s biggest economies, could also impact the conflict in Ukraine, as France has played a key role in diplomatic efforts and support for sanctions against Russia.
Le Pen’s support in France’s electorate has grown during this campaign to her highest level ever, and much depended on Sunday on how many people turned out to vote. Participation was 26.1 per cent by midday, slightly higher than at the same point in the first-round vote on April 10th.
Many of those who were expected to choose Macron were doing so to keep out Le Pen and ideas seen as too extreme and anti-democratic, such as her plan to ban the Muslim headscarf in public, or her ties to Russia.
“I am serene,” Ms Le Pen said as she cast her ballot in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont. “I have confidence in the French.” She took selfies with fans, as Macron greeted crowds with handshakes and embraces in the English Channel coastal town of Le Touquet.
Both candidates had been trying to court the 7.7 million votes of leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was defeated in the first round on April 10th.
For many who voted for left-wing candidates in the first round, the run-off presented an unpalatable choice between a nationalist in Le Pen, and a president who some feel has veered to the right during his first term. The outcome could depend on how left-wing voters made up their minds: between backing Macron or abstaining and leaving him to fend for himself against Le Pen.
Voting west of Paris in the suburb of Le Pecq, Stephanie David cast her ballot for Macron “without much joy”. She had voted for the Communist Party candidate in round one.
“It was the least worst choice,” said the transport logistics worker. Le Pen was anathema to her: “Even if she tries to soften her rhetoric, I can’t stomach it.”
All opinion polls in recent days converge toward a win for the 44-year-old pro-European Macron – yet the margin over his 53-year-old far-right rival varies broadly. Polls also forecast a possibly record-high number of people who will either cast a blank vote or not vote at all.
Retiree Jean-Pierre Roux voted to keep out Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie in the 2002 run-off and again against his daughter in 2017. But Roux could not bring himself to vote Macron again this time. He put an empty envelope in the voting box. He said he regarded Macron as too arrogant to vote for again, citing a common complaint of the president that Le Pen echoed, too.
“I am not against his ideas but I cannot stand the person,” he said.
Le Pen sought to appeal to working class voters struggling with surging prices amid the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine – an approach that even Macron acknowledged has found resonance in the wider public. She said bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected as France’s first woman president, and she portrayed herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She said that Macron’s presidency has left the country deeply divided. She has repeatedly referenced the so-called yellow vest protest movement that rocked his government before the Covid-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies that some thought hurt the poorest.
France’s presidential campaign has been especially challenging for voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities, notably because of Le Pen’s proposed policies targeting Muslims.
Macron has also touted his environmental and climate accomplishments in a bid to draw in young voters popular with far-left candidates. Citizens and especially millennials voted in droves for Melenchon. Many young voters are particularly engaged with climate issues.
Although Macron was associated with the slogan “Make the Planet Great Again”, in his first five-year term, he capitulated to angry yellow vest protesters by scrapping a tax hike on fuel prices.
Macron has said his next prime minister would be placed in charge of environmental planning as France seeks to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Le Pen, once considered a climate-change sceptic, wants to scrap subsidies for renewable energies. She vowed to dismantle windfarms and invest in nuclear and hydro energy.
Opinion polls in recent days gave Macron a solid and slightly growing lead as analysts said Le Pen – despite her efforts to soften her image and tone down some of her National Rally party’s policies – remained unpalatable for many.
But before voting a surprise Le Pen victory could not be ruled out. With polls showing neither candidate able to count on enough core supporters to win, much depended on those still weighing up anxiety about the implications of a far-right presidency against anger at Macron’s record since his 2017 election.
A Le Pen victory would mark a political upheaval for Western democracies on a par with Brexit or the US election of Donald Trump in 2016, ending decades of rule by mainstream French leaders and the latest threat to the future of the European Union.
Polls opened at 8 am and closed at 8 pm.
Earlier on Sunday, Hugo Winter, a 26-year-old salesman in Paris, said he would be among those who would not bother to cast a vote.
“I don’t see the point in choosing between two things that don’t correspond to my ideas,” Winter said as he did some morning food shopping. “We live in a parallel world. The politicians don’t represent the people.”
In Douai, a mid-sized town in northern France where Le Pen was ahead of Macron in the first round of voting two weeks ago, pensioner Andre Loeuillet (69) said she had voted for Macron, as she did on April 10th.
“He has his faults but he has qualities too. He is the one best placed to continue, we are living through difficult times,” she said.
Macron who won against Le Pen in the last presidential election five years ago, has warned of “civil war” if Le Pen – whose policies include a ban on wearing Muslim headscarves in public - is elected and has called on democrats of all stripes to back him.
Le Pen focused her campaign on the rising cost of living in the world’s seventh largest economy, which many French say has worsened with the surge in global energy prices. She has also zeroed in on Macron’s abrasive leadership style, which she says shows an elitist contempt for ordinary people.
“The question on Sunday is simple: Macron or France,” she told a rally in the northern town of Arras on Thursday. - PA with additional reporting by Reuters