PARIS: France on Saturday prepared to choose between centrist President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen to rule the country for the next five years after a bitterly contested and polarising election campaign.
Macron is the favourite to win re-election in the run-off ballot on Sunday, and there are indications he bolstered his advantage with a combative performance in the one-off election debate against a somewhat defensive Le Pen this week.
But the president and his allies have insisted over the last week that nothing is in the bag, with a strong turnout crucial to avoid a shock in France comparable to the 2016 polls that led to Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump’s election in the United States.
Polls in mainland France will open at 0600 GMT on Sunday and close 12 hours later, immediately followed by projections that usually predict the result with a degree of accuracy.
But voters in French overseas territories that span the globe and are home to almost three million people have started voting earlier.
The first vote in the election was cast by a 90-year-old man in the tiny island territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the northern coast of Canada.
Polls subsequently opened in France’s islands in the Caribbean and the South American territory of French Guiana and voting later starts in territories in the Pacific and then Indian Ocean before it gets underway on the mainland.
Some 48.7 million French are eligible to vote.
A Le Pen victory would send shockwaves across Europe. Left-leaning EU leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have pleaded with France to choose Macron over his rival.
The stakes are huge — Le Pen would become modern France’s first far-right leader and first female president. Macron would be the first French president to win re-election in two decades.
If elected, Macron is expected, in a symbolic gesture, to address supporters on the Champ de Mars in central Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Macron and Le Pen threw themselves into a final flurry of campaigning Friday, firing off attacks in interviews before last-minute walkabouts and rallies.
Le Pen insisted that opinion polls giving Macron the lead would be proved wrong and took aim at her rival’s plan to push back the retirement age to 65 from 62.
Macron for his part said Le Pen was trying to mask an authoritarian “extreme right” platform that stigmatises Muslims with a plan to outlaw headscarves in public.
But the campaign also had some lighter moments. Macron’s quizzical stares during the TV debate and a daringly unbuttoned shirt during a campaigning break that provided a glimpse of his strikingly hairy chest became instant Internet memes.
Polls have shown Macron with a lead of some 10 percentage points. The highly anticipated TV debate on Wednesday did not change the trend and, if anything, allowed Macron to open more of a gap.
But the result is predicted to be closer than in 2017, when the same candidates faced off but Macron carried the day with 66 percent to 34 percent.
Analysts say abstention rates could reach 26 to 28 percent, with reluctant left-wingers needing to back the president for him to be sure of victory, although the 1969 record for a second-round abstention rate of 31.1 percent is not expected to be beaten.