Voting opens in first round of French presidential election

PARIS (AP) — Voting began across France on Sunday for the first round of the country’s presidential election, where up to 48 million eligible voters will choose between 12 candidates. President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a second five-year term, posing a formidable challenge from afar.

Voting opened at 8 a.m. on Sunday and closed at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) in most places and an hour later in some major cities. France operates a manual system for elections: voters are obliged to cast ballots in person, which will be counted by hand at the close of voting.

There will be a second and deciding round between the top two candidates on Sunday, April 24, unless someone receives more than half of the nationwide vote.

Voters queue up before a polling station in southern Paris opened on Sunday amid a cold April. Once inside, they put their paper ballots in envelopes and then in a transparent box, some wearing masks or using hand gel as part of COVID-19 measures.

In addition to Macron, right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen and far-right firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon are among the prominent figures vying for President Elysee.

Macron, a political centrist, seemed like a shoo-in for months, becoming the first president of France to win a second term in 20 years. But that scenario blurred in the closing stages of the campaign as inflation and the pain of pump, food and energy prices returned as major election themes for many low-income households. They could lead many voters on Sunday into the arms of right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, Macron’s political nemesis.

Macron overtook Le Pen by a landslide to become the youngest president of France in 2017. The former banker’s victory – now 44 – was seen as a victory against populist, nationalist politics that came in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House and Britain. In 2016 both vote to leave the European Union.

With populist Viktor Orbán winning a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister a few days ago, eyes are now turned to France’s resurgent far-right candidates – in particular national rally leader Le Pen, who fights the streets and the halal. And want to ban Muslim headscarves in kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe. The election has the potential to reshape France’s post-war identity and signal whether European populism is on the rise or in decline.

Meanwhile, if Macron wins, it will be seen as a victory for the European Union. Observers say Macron’s re-election would create real potential for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defence – especially with a new pro-EU German government.

With the war singing at the eastern end of the European Union, French voters would vote in a presidential election, the results of which would have international implications. France is the second economy of the 27-member bloc, the only one with a United Nations Security Council veto and its only nuclear power. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues the war in Ukraine, French power will help shape Europe’s response.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has given Macron an opportunity to demonstrate his influence on the international stage and burn his pro-NATO credentials in election debates. Macron is the only front-runner who supports the coalition, while other candidates have differing views on France’s role. Melanchons are among those who want to skip it altogether, saying it creates nothing but fights and instability.

Such a development would be a major blow to a coalition formed 73 years ago to protect its members in the looming Cold War.

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John Leicester of Poissy, France and Patrick Hermansen in Paris contributed

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