French voters are heading to the polls to decide whether to give centrist Emmanuel Macron five more years as president or replace him with far-right Marine Le Pen.
French voters have taken to the polls for the presidential election between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his challenger Marine Le Pen, after a fractious campaign that has seen the far right come its closest yet to winning power.
Mr Macron went into the run-off on Sunday with a stable lead in opinion polls, an advantage he consolidated in the frenetic final days of campaigning, including a no-holds-barred performance in the pre-election debate.
But analysts have cautioned that the 44-year-old, who rose to power in 2017 aged 39 as the country’s youngest-ever modern leader, can take nothing for granted given forecasts of low turnout that could sway the result in either direction.
In order to win they both need to attract voters who backed other candidates in the first round.
At midday, voter participation stood at 26.4 per cent, nearly two percentage points lower than at the same time five years ago, when Mr Macron handily beat Ms Le Pen in their first face-off.
But turnout was above the 25.5 per cent seen at midday in the first round of voting on April 10, said the interior ministry, which will issue its next update on voter participation at 1am AEST.
Lucien Chameroy, 80, said he “didn’t hesitate at all” after casting his ballot in Dijon, eastern France.
“There’s a lot at stake, and I think people don’t realise that if you don’t vote, it’s the street that decides, and it’s a minority that takes power,” he told AFP.
Ms Le Pen beamed as she greeted supporters before casting her ballot in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a stronghold of her National Rally party, while Mr Macron worked a crowd of several hundreds before voting with his wife Brigitte in the Channel resort town of Le Touquet.
Voting stations will close at 4am AEST, when preliminary results will be released that usually predict the final result with a high degree of accuracy.
Mr Macron in particular is hoping that left-wing voters who backed other candidates in the first round on April 10 will support the former investment banker and his pro-business, reformist agenda to stop Ms Le Pen and her populist program.
But far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who scored a close third-place finish in the first round, has pointedly refused to urge his millions of followers to back Mr Macron while insisting they should not vote for Ms Le Pen.
Mr Macron himself repeatedly made clear that the complacency of stay-at-home voters precipitated the shocks of the 2016 elections that led to Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump’s election in the United States.
Analysts have forecast that abstention rates could reach 26 to 28 per cent, though the 1969 record for a second-round abstention rate of 31.1 per cent is not expected to be beaten.
Another factor is that elections are being held in the midst of the Easter school break in much of France.
According to Martial Foucault, director of the CEVIPOF political studies centre, a high abstention rate will narrow the gap between Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, describing this as a “real risk” for the president.
Early turnout indications will be closely watched from the overseas territories, where average incomes are lower than in mainland France and which generally backed Mr Melenchon in the first round.
In New Caledonia, for example, turnout at midday was just 18.2 per cent. In mainland France, the first turnout estimation will be published at 2am AEST.
The stakes are huge for both France and Europe, with Mr Macron pledging reform and tighter EU integration while Ms Le Pen, who would be France’s first female president, insists the bloc should be modified in what opponents describe as “Frexit” by another name.
Mr Macron has also opposed Ms Le Pen’s plan to make it illegal to wear the Muslim headscarf in public, though her team has walked back on the proposal ahead of the vote, saying it was no longer a “priority”.
They have also clashed on Russia, with Mr Macron seeking to portray Ms Le Pen as incapable of dealing with the invasion of Ukraine due to a loan her party took from a Russian-Czech bank.
Mr Macron would be the first French president to win re-election in two decades since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
If elected, he is expected to address supporters on the Champ de Mars in central Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Polls have shown Mr Macron with a lead of around 10 percentage points, a much closer outcome than in 2017, when Mr Macron carried the day with 66 per cent of the vote.
Originally published as Macron battles far-right Le Pen for French presidency