Polls have closed and vote-counting is under way at more than 500 voting stations in France, following a closely watched presidential election that could decide whether France’s leadership goes to the far right or left.
Early estimates placed centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in the lead, followed by nationalist, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen. It would be the first time in the history of the modern French Republic the two candidates moving to the second and final round are from non-traditional parties.
Eleven candidates were on the ballot as voters turned out in large numbers that, according to French Interior Ministry officials, at midday appeared to match the 80 percent turnout of the 2012 presidential election.
The vote occurred amid tight security following a terrorist attack in Paris just days before the poll.
State of emergency, tight security
Sunday, 50,000 police officers backed by 7,000 soldiers, including special forces, were deployed to the streets amid tensions following the attack claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group. The shooting along the iconic Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris left one police officer dead and several other people injured.
This was the first election to be held under a state of emergency called after the 2015 Paris attacks and observers say last week’s shooting may have brought out many voters who had otherwise planned to abstain.
In a tweet a day after the Champs Elysees shooting, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
Despite predictions of low voter turnout, witnesses said lines formed at voting stations at voting stations before opening hours and turnout was reported to be heavy at various polling stations across the country.
Pre-election polls show tight race
Macron, a center-left former economy minister who is pro-Europe, pro-business and has close ties to unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande led pre-election polls. His appeal lies mainly in France’s prosperous urban areas where globalism has benefited many.
Le Pen wants to end most immigration to France, especially from Muslim countries. She also wants France to leave the European Union. Her strongholds are largely in formerly industrial areas of France where unemployment is high and so is disillusionment with the modern economic and social order.
Another top contender is former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a center-right social conservative who favors cuts in public spending and pushing for deep reforms in the European Union.
Analysts and voters interviewed see this as the most unpredictable election since World War Two. One third of voters were undecided just days before the balloting.
In the last few weeks before the vote, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon surged in the polls and so did discussion of the previously obscure candidate in social media.
Among the ways his campaign lured young voters was through the release of a video game in which a player pretending to be Melenchon walks the streets and takes money from men in suits. The player is shown in a battle against the rich and powerful.
Anger at the establishment is the sentiment driving voters in an election in which security, France’s lagging economy, its 10-percent unemployment rate, and Islamist extremism are issues on the minds of those on the left and on the right.
That, say analysts, is what is influencing large numbers of people, including some of the middle and upper class residents of Paris, to vote for candidates of the extreme, like Le Pen and Melenchon.
“Some of them for the thrill of it. It’s the principle, you know. Like playing Russian roulette, but politically. Some others it would be because they despise the elite of this country,” said Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst in Paris, told VOA.
In France, the prevailing candidate in a presidential race needs an absolute majority. If no one wins a majority, the top vote getters in Sunday’s poll will face off in a final round on May 7th.
Socialist President Francois Hollande announced he would not to run for reelection after his approval ratings sank to 4 percent, something analysts widely attribute to a string of terrorist attacks in France and a stagnation of economic growth during his tenure. Hollande is the first incumbent president not to seek reelection in the history of modern France.