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Why France's presidential election matters far beyond its borders

A wide gulf exists between the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The two face off Sunday, in the second round of France's national election.
Ludovic Marin
AFP via Getty Images
A wide gulf exists between the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The two face off Sunday, in the second round of France's national election.

French President Emmanuel Macron faces far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on Sunday, in a rematch of 2017's presidential election.

The vote is a runoff election, since neither candidate won more than 50% of the votes in an earlier round of voting on April 10. But the final outcome is expected to be much closer than it was five years ago, when Macron defeated Le Pen with two-thirds of the vote. Currently, polls show Macron with a slight edge.

Early results are expected to emerge after the last polling stations close at 8 p.m. local time Sunday, or 2 p.m. ET. The election's first round saw a participation rate of nearly 74% — a slight drop from the 2017 race.

Here's why the election matters well beyond France's borders:

Will right-wing ideology continue its spread across Europe?

At the heart of the election is a choice between a political centrist — Macron — and a right-wing populist, Le Pen.

Right-wing sentiment has spread across Europe in recent years. Increased immigration, refugee crises, economic challenges and the coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to voters choosing right-wing candidates and policies — like Brexit, for instance, and Hungary's parliamentary elections this month, in which the party of autocratic leader Viktor Orban overcame a united effort by opposition parties to block his fourth term.

Le Pen has called for dramatic reductions in immigration and a ban on Muslim headscarves. Her party, formerly known as the National Front, was founded by Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and was once associated with Holocaust denialism and Islamophobia.

The younger Le Pen has worked to soften the party's image. She has framed her policies as necessary to protect the interests of French women and LGBTQ people.

Her competitiveness in this election is an indication that her efforts have worked, says Nonna Mayer, a French political scientist who studies the far right.

"She has given a new electoral dynamic to the party because she's a woman and she has managed to speak to and to rally female voters, which were repulsed by the father," Mayer says.

Will France stay focused on Europe, or will it turn inward?

Macron has spent much of his five years in office focused on Europe and strengthening the European Union. He has ambitiously worked to position himself as one of the continent's top diplomats, including in his past efforts to win over President Donald Trump and, more recently, his work to seek a peaceful solution to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

France has the second-largest economy in the European Union, and the defense website Global Firepower says France has the EU's strongest military. But some French voters, dissatisfied with conditions at home, feel that Macron has prioritized the continent at the cost of conditions at home.

"Macron is annoying us with Europe. Every time he opens his mouth, he talks about Europe, Europe, Europe. When is he going to talk about France?" says Raymond Blot, a resident of Elbeuf, in the northern Normandy region. Blot says he plans to vote for Le Pen.

Le Pen has pitched herself as the candidate most focused on everyday French residents, especially working-class voters who've experienced economic hardship in recent years. But she has backed away from some of her most extreme positions, including her onetime campaign for France to leave the European Union.

"The electors care about the domestic situation first, and we elect the French president with the intention to have someone to defend French interests," says Martin Quencez, a Paris-based researcher at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Le Pen's ties to Russia are newly relevant

With Russia's war in Ukraine, Le Pen's long-criticized connections to Russiahave been reanimated.

The First Czech-Russian Bank loaned Le Pen's party 9 million euros in 2014. The loan has been under scrutiny ever since. Le Pen's personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including a visit with the leader in Moscow in 2017, have also been fodder for criticism.

Macron seized on these points during a presidential debate on Wednesday, accusing Le Pen of being in "Russia's grip."

"You cannot correctly defend France's interests on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power," he said. "You depend on Russian power, and you depend on Mr. Putin."

Le Pen said French banks had refused to loan her party money, leaving her with no other choice. And on Wednesday, she said she supported the sanctions that France and other countries have placed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

But she also said the West's isolation of Russia could push Moscow toward China. "This could be a huge risk for the West, for Europe and for France," she said.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.