‘Stark choice’: French voters cast ballot in presidential runoff

French voters are casting ballots in the presidential runoff to choose between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen.

Opinion polls suggest that Macron, 44, has a solid lead, but analysts have cautioned that low turnout could sway the outcome in either direction. About 48.7 million citizens are eligible to vote.

Polling stations opened at 8am (06:00 GMT) on Sunday and close at 7pm (17:00 GMT) in most places, apart from big cities which have chosen to keep stations open until 8pm.

Voter turnout as of 5pm local time was at 63.2 percent, two points lower than the same in 2017.

Macron’s popularity has taken a beating since he was first elected, but the war in Ukraine steadied his chances of re-election, particularly in light of the renewed Russian offensive in the east.

Marine Le Pen’s dogged focus on inflation and the cost of living have seen her perform better than in 2017.

Unlike previous elections where immigration, religion-versus-secularism and identity were front and centre, this election has been fought on two principle issues, purchasing power and security.

Le Pen has focused hard on the feeling that the voters’ money buys less: almost 70 percent of voters say their purchasing power has decreased under Macron’s first term.

Security and the ongoing war in Ukraine are other issues playing a key role in voters’ decision-making. They are seen as a strong point for Macron, who accused Le Pen of having close ties to Russia during the presidential debate on April 20.

Macron also bitterly opposed her plan to make it illegal to wear the Muslim headscarf in public.

Polls have consistently predicted that Macron will win a second term. The race tightened during the first round of election, but he appears to have pulled away since then. They now suggest a Macron victory around the 56-44 percent range.

“It’s a stark choice the French face today. Both candidates offer a very different version for the way they see France in the future,” Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from the capital, Paris, said.

Smith said both candidates are vying for votes from supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who lost to Le Pen in the first round by 1 percent.

“Melanchon did not [directly] endorse Macron, he just said no vote should go to the far right,” Smith said.

Rim Sarah Alouane, researcher at the University of Toulouse, said that vulnerable communities – especially minorities – are “extremely frustrated” with their electoral options for the runoff.

“They have been vilified for five years – and even before – and now they are being told they have to save the Republic again,” she told Al Jazeera. “There is a lot of frustration and low expectations unfortunately, so I fear that the level of abstention will be quite important for this round of election.”

Alouane went on to say that the candidates’ focus on immigration, Islam and the wearing of the headscarf is a “good distraction” from the real issues at hand, such as the rise of unemployment, poverty levels, and the dismantlement of public services.

“People are asking for these issues to be addressed but they are being ignored again,” she said.

Analysts have warned though that the incumbent president, who rose to power in 2017 aged 39 as the country’s youngest ever modern leader, can take nothing for granted with turnout crucial to ensuring victory.

To take account of the time difference with mainland France, polls opened earlier in overseas territories, home to almost three million French.

The first vote in the election was cast midday on Saturday Paris time 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, followed by territories in the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean before the mainland joined.

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