By Joshua Berlinger, CNN
French voters will choose between two very different visions for their country during Sunday’s presidential runoff election, as the centrist President Emmanuel Macron seeks to fend off a challenge from his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen.
Macron, 44, is pitching voters on an innovative, globalized France at the head of a muscular European Union. Le Pen, 53, has put forward an economically nationalist, more inward-looking platform that would represent a fundamental shift from the direction France has taken since the end of World War II.
Macron and Le Pen advanced to Sunday’s runoff contest after finishing in first and second place, respectively, in the first round of the vote two weeks ago, setting up a rematch of the 2017 contest. Macron bested Le Pen in that vote by nearly two to one.
Analysts expect a much tighter race this time.
The contest was expected to be an effective referendum on the rise of France’s political extremes before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, prompting a shift in the national discourse.
Macron’s attempts at diplomacy took him away from the campaign trail, while Le Pen was forced to backtrack on her previous support for Vladimir Putin. Le Pen had long been a vocal admirer of the Russian President, even visiting him during her 2017 campaign, and her party took out a loan from a Czech-Russian bank several years ago.
She has since condemned Moscow’s decision to invade, and defended the loan by explaining her party was forced to seek funding abroad because no French bank would approve the request.
Despite her previous support for Putin, Le Pen has put herself in a strong position to win by focusing on pocketbook issues, veering away from the typical far-right platform focused on immigration, security and identity that dominated her 2017 campaign. However, she has not abandoned some of her most controversial policies, like banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public.
French voters are particularly concerned about the cost of living, which has skyrocketed due to inflation and rising energy prices, and experts say she has done a good job empathizing with French voters struggling to make ends meet, especially beyond her base in the former industrial heartlands where jobs have been lost due to globalization and technological advancement. She also performed better in Wednesday’s presidential debate than she did in 2017, when her poor showing sealed her fate.
However, critics say Le Pen’s campaign has not adequately explained how Paris will pay for many of the solutions being proposed. They also question whether all of them abide by French and EU law.
And while Le Pen has abandoned some of her more controversial policies, like leaving the EU and abandoning the euro, experts say many of her proposals would still put France on a collision course with the EU.
Macron, meanwhile, is no longer the popular new kid on the block. The former investment banker and economy minister must defend a mixed political record while also convincing voters that his platform, headlined by major investments in industry and fighting the climate crisis, won’t simply mean more of the same.
During his first term, Macron’s ambitious plan to bolster the European Union’s autonomy and geopolitical heft won him respect abroad and at home.
But his domestic policies are more divisive, and he remains a somewhat unpopular figure who is seen by many as arrogant, elitist and out of touch. Macron’s handling of the yellow vest movement, one of France’s most prolonged protests in decades, was widely panned, and his record on the Covid-19 pandemic is inconclusive.
The French government spent billions of euros to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic, which came at a cost of increasing the national deficit. Macron’s signature policy during the crisis — requiring people to show proof of vaccination to go about their lives as normal — helped increase vaccination rates but fired up a vocal minority against his presidency.
While Macron won 27.8% of the votes in the first round to take the top spot, the results indicated major voter discontent with the status quo. Candidates on the extreme left and right accounted for an unprecedented 57% of the ballots cast in the first round, and 26.3% of registered voters stayed home — resulting in the lowest turnout figure in 20 years.
The candidates finished campaigning Friday. They are barred from campaigning on Saturday and Sunday, while the media is subject to strict reporting restrictions until polls close at 8 p.m. local time.
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CNN’s Joseph Ataman contributed to this report