French voters head to the polls on Sunday for one of the most important presidential elections the country has seen in decades.
Twelve candidates, including current Emmanuel Macron, are vying for the top position. If neither of them gets more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will face each other in the run-off on April 24. But the second round is almost guaranteed – no French presidential candidate has ever won the first round under the current system.
Macron is seeking to become the first French president to win re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
The centrist Macron faces a series of challengers from the extreme political parties, including Marine Le Pen, the long-time standard bearer of the French far-right. television analyst and author Eric Zemmour; And the left-wing troublemaker Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Most analysts said the competition would be a referendum on the rise of the French right, but the war in Ukraine turned those expectations upside down.
The president proposed a higher tax on diesel early in his term, sparking the yellow vest movement, one of France’s most protracted protests in decades. His record in the Covid-19 pandemic, the other defining crisis of his presidency, is unclear. Macron’s signature policy during the Covid era – requiring people to show proof of vaccination to go about their lives as usual – has helped boost vaccination rates but has fired a shot at a vociferous minority opposing his presidency.
Macron has so far campaigned very little and refused to discuss his opponents. Experts believe his strategy was to avoid political vilification for as long as possible to slander him as the most presidential of all the candidates.
For her part, Le Pen campaigned more widely this year than her last attempt to win the presidency. And while controlling immigration remains her campaign priority, she has softened her anti-Islam rhetoric and dropped her calls for France to leave the European Union – particularly in the wake of Brexit – to win voters outside her base.
Political analysts say Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living could pay off, as rising prices for everyday goods and energy are among the main concerns of voters.
Many experts also expected the war to hurt the campaigns of Le Pen and Zemmour, both of whom had previously spoken fondly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen canceled a post that carried a photo of her visiting the Russian leader, while Zemmour retracted his stance after Putin promised he would never invade Ukraine.
Nathalie Lusseau, a member of the European Parliament and Macron’s first minister for European affairs, told CNN she believed the French president was motivated by a “sense of duty”.
He did not do so for electoral reasons. “He’s doing it because he thinks he has to,” she said.
But Macron’s decision to abandon his campaign rather than seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine, whether motivated by politics or principles, could prove to be a burden.
“It’s not rewarding. He’s not going to get a big win. And he knows it. But he has to do it,” Loiso said.