By Uganda Online Correspondent
French voters began casting their ballots on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen is mounting a strong challenge to the incumbent Emmanuel Macron.
A victory for Le Pen, who is skeptical about the EU and Nato and has in the past boasted of her ties with Vladimir Putin, would send shockwaves across Europe and the world at a time when the Russian president’s forces are waging a war on European soil in Ukraine.
If she became president, Le Pen has also promised to introduce more protectionist economic policies to favor French industry, a crackdown on Islamists and on immigration, and forbid women to wear the veil in public on the grounds that it is an “Islamist uniform”.
“Never has the prospect of a real change been so close,” Le Pen told cheering supporters in her final rally before polling day, held on Thursday in the far-right stronghold of Perpignan, where her former partner Louis Aliot is mayor. Campaigning was not allowed the day before polls opened.
Le Pen hopes to emulate the nationalist triumphs of the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016, and the US election victory of Donald Trump later that year. She lost clearly to the liberal internationalist Macron in the 2017 election.
Macron’s predicted margin of victory this year has been steadily squeezed in recent weeks, sending jitters through financial markets about the prospect of a Eurosceptic nationalist taking charge of the EU’s second-biggest economy.
French television channels will broadcast projections of the final results as soon as polls close at 18:00 GMT.
The two frontrunners will head into the second round of elections on April 24, a repeat of the 2017 elections that Macron won by a landslide.
For Francoise Boucek, a visiting research fellow and associate of the Centre for European Research, the two-week period following the first round will be highly significant.
“It’s interesting to see the repositioning that is required right after the first round, in a matter of hours,” she said. “The other parties will have to mobilize their leadership and decide what to do and what to advise their voters.”
Boucek said that the “fed up with politicians” attitude is a concern for the candidates but particularly worrying for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is polling in third place.
“On the assumption that it’s Le Pen versus Macron, who is Mélenchon going to counsel his voters to support?” she asked. “He’s been going after Macron, criticizing him all along.”
According to Boucek, the suspense might incentivize voters to participate even more in the second round, especially as abstention is projected to hit a record high.
“In the past few weeks, especially over the past few days, things have turned around quite a lot,” she said. “It’s been a slow start but an exciting finish.”
Some 48.7 million voters are registered across France to cast ballots.
Analysts fear that the 2002 record of French voters boycotting a first-round – 28.4 percent – risks being beaten, with the 2017 absentee rate of 22.2 percent almost sure to be exceeded.
In the overseas territories, where voting is already underway, the participation rate has been low so far. Nearly 37.08 percent of people had voted in Guadeloupe, 34.6 percent in Guyana, 35.1 percent in Martinique, 44.4 percent in St-Pierre-et-Miquelon, and 12.34 percent in Polynesia, according to the official data by the prefecture.