Today's vote in France will determine whether the pro-European centrist President Emmanuel Macron or the far-right, anti-immigration Marine Le Pen runs the European Union's second-largest economy for the next five years.
How it works
The French presidential election is a two-round election with voting taking place on two Sundays, two weeks apart.
Should a candidate win an outright majority (more than 50%) in round one, they would automatically become president, but that's never happened since the system was introduced in 1962.
Almost 50 million people (48.7 million) are eligible to vote in the presidential election, with anyone over the age of 18 able to register. Unlike in Ireland, French citizens abroad can register to vote, doing so at the local French consulate/embassy.
Like Ireland, it is a paper-based system, with registered voters being sent all the candidates' names printed on ballots in the post (this year there were 12 candidates).
On election day, the voter goes to the polling station with their chosen candidate's name on the ballot (or they can get a new one). The voter is given a special envelope which they fill with the ballot in a private booth, before putting it in the ballot box. Upon doing so, the election official says "A voté" (voted!) and the voter signs their name.
The presidential election "La Présidentielle" is the most popular election, in terms of voter turnout, though it has also suffered a decline in recent years. This year, 26% of registered voters abstained, a number predicted to rise by pollsters Ipsos when taken across the two rounds.
In June, France will again head to the polls, this time for legislative elections (like a general election in Ireland) for who will make up the National Assembly, or lower house of the parliament.
This will be seen as a major test of the 26th president of France, who will be selected in round two (24 April).
Some commentators say that the winning candidate will have a certain momentum behind them, but neither Macron nor Le Pen's parties did particularly well in last year’s local elections, so it will be a challenge for both of them.
Why two rounds?
It’s often said that in the first round, you vote with your heart, while in the second round, you vote with your head. Less poetically speaking, in the first round, you can choose your favourite candidate, whom you feel best represents you, but it may be the case of choosing the lesser of two evils in round two.
This year, Emmanuel Macron is once again facing Marine Le Pen, just like in 2017. This has left many voters frustrated, saying they’ve no real choice. More on that later.
The current system was introduced, via a referendum, in 1962. General Charles de Gaulle, the founding father of the Fifth Republic (the current system), was wary of the power of political parties, so campaigned for a two-round voting system to dilute their influence. In first-past-the-post systems (like the UK and US), political parties can win an election without winning a majority of votes.
However, opponents of the system argue that with an abundance of candidates in round one, several similar candidates can end up splitting the vote, giving competitors the advantage.
For example in 2022, had left-wing parties united behind one candidate, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, it would have been likely that he, rather than Marine Le Pen, would be facing Emmanuel Macron in the second round of voting on 24 April.
How did round one go?
Pretty much as predicted for the top candidates, but less so for the less popular ones. As seasoned election observers say, there are always some surprises.
Incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his challenger, Marine Le Pen, increased their vote from 2017, as did the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was within 1.2% of Marine Le Pen’s result, or 422,000 votes. Emmanuel Macron won almost 28% of the vote to Marine Le Pen’s 23%, with Mr Mélenchon just shy of 22%.
The real surprise was the collapse of support for traditional government parties, Les Républicains who are centre-right conservatives and Le Parti Socialiste who are as the name suggests, left-wing and moderate.
Les Républicains ran their first ever woman, Valérie Pécresse, as candidate for the presidency, who secured less than 5% of the vote. They were last in power under President Nicolas Sarkozy who served from 2007-2012.
The Socialists ran Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who scored a dismal 1.75%. They were last in the Elysée Palace from 2012-2017 with François Hollande.
What are the big issues for voters?
The cost of living has become the major issue for Election 2022, which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Last year, as far-right candidate Éric Zemmour announced his candidacy with an ultra-nationalist manifesto, it looked like immigration might dominate the campaign, but despite a strong start, the TV pundit saw his support plummet when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Marine Le Pen, also on the far-right of the political spectrum, probably benefited from Zemmour’s fall in popularity. Ms Le Pen has also been working for years to soften her image and has made the "pouvoir d’achat" (purchasing power, or cost of living) her number one issue.
Marine Le Pen, (like the defeated Mélenchon) would like to reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60 in the case of those who started work young, whereas Macron initially said it had to be raised to 65 to counter the ageing population and rising proportion of pensioners to workers.
Since the first round of the election on 10 April, Macron has hinted he’s willing to slow down the pace of reform, and only raise it to 64, as a compromise.
Mr Macron has made the environment one of his main priorities, and favours atomic energy as a means of reducing France’s carbon output. Conversely, Marine Le Pen doesn’t mention the environment in her manifesto at all.
Who will win on Sunday?
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen by a huge margin, winning 66% of the vote to her 33%. Macron was seen as a disrupter, a breath of fresh air and had only recently founded a new movement, La République en Marche (LREM).
But polls are tighter in this year’s election, and while Emmanuel Macron is still in the lead, at one point Le Pen was within touching distance. One poll, published on 10 April by Ipsos saw Macron on 51% to Le Pen’s 49%, so, within the margin of error.
Since then, Macron has consolidated his lead over his challenger. On 20 April, three polls for the second-round runoff put Macron at the highest level since before the first round, with an average score of 55.83%, up more than three points from an average of five polls before the first round.
But his Prime Minister Jean Castex urged supporters not to take a win for granted and said abstentions could benefit Le Pen.
Why is voter apathy such a big issue?
26% of registered voters abstained in round one, with a similar level (27%) predicted to sit out round two. But why are more than a quarter of voters not motivated to cast their ballots?
Turnout rates in French elections have been on a downwards trend since the 1980s. In 2017, more than a fifth of French voters sat out at least one round, Interior Ministry data shows. A disproportionate number of them were young people, according to the official INSEE statistics office.
While young voters often engaged in issues such as climate change, analysts said abstainers eschew party politics due to lack of interest or because politicians were seen as failing to improve their lives.
Some voters said they had been supportive of Macron in 2017, seeing him as providing something different, but that he turned out to be the same as other politicians. The fact that he’s facing off against Le Pen again reinforces this view.
Global vs national concerns
Both Mr Macron and ms Le Pen have rejected the labels of right and left, the former saying he’s neither (but has arguably moved to the right in recent years) and the latter involved in a major effort to sanitise her image from the racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic origins of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party. However, Ms Le Pen and the renamed Rassemblement National are still strongly associated with the far-right.
It is useful to look at the two opponents rather, as globalist vs nationalist in outlook.
Mr Macron is unabashedly pro-European. One reason cited for his late entry into the presidential race, is that he was using the French presidency of the European Council as a platform to campaign. His manifesto is firmly European and global in its outlook, and the EU is hoping for a Macron victory. Conversely, a win for Le Pen would mean an 'existential crisis’ for the EU, according to one expert.
Sophie Pornschlegel, a European Policy Centre Senior Policy Analyst told Reuters: "I think what needs to be clear is that Marine Le Pen is a far-right nationalist. She is anti-European. She has said she was for Frexit (France leaving the European Union) in 2012. In 2017, she said that she was for France to leave the euro, and now she is not saying this anymore, but the basic guidelines of her policy haven't changed, so she would be putting the EU in an existential crisis as she would be against every kind of EU policy and every kind of progress we can make in Brussels. So, if she is elected, I think it would be an existential crisis for the EU."
Ms Le Pen has stepped back from her earlier proposal for a referendum on Frexit, and indeed doesn’t mention the EU in her 2022 manifesto at all. But observers say many of her policies would contravene EU law, as she seeks to prioritise French nationals over non-citizens living in France.
The big (the only) debate!
As Emmanuel Macron entered the race at the 11th hour, a decision he says he now regrets but blames on world events, there were no debates with all the candidates before the first round.
In 2017, Ms Le Pen’s poor performance in a debate with Macron saw her support drop dramatically, and she has been preparing to avoid a repeat.
At the start of "Le Grand Débat" on Wednesday night, both candidates appeared calm and composed, with Marine Le Pen starting proceedings.
The first topic of conversation, as chosen by the moderators, was the 'Pouvoir D'Achat’ which Ms Le Pen has made her rallying cry.
She spoke of seeing the suffering of French people over the past five years, and said she would preside over a renaissance for France.
Mr Macron quickly referred to the pandemic and the war, suggesting cataclysmic world events had overshadowed his presidency and impacted on the cost of living.
Ms Le Pen seemed very well prepared, but is no match for the ex-banker Macron when it comes to crunching numbers, despite offering tempting proposals for voters like retiring from work at the age of 60 for those who started work young.
When it came to international issues, Mr Macron was quick to accuse Ms Le Pen of depending on Russian power, for taking out loans from Russian banks. Ms Le Pen said she was a free woman, and a patriot, and was paying back the loans, but it was a bruising exchange for the latter.
The pair’s wildly differing approaches to Europe was in evidence too, with Mr Macron saying he believed in the European project and the Franco-German alliance as its driving force.
While Ms Le Pen said she wanted a Europe of nations, and that European institutions desperately needed reform, adding that she was the woman to implement change.
It’s hard to say if the debate will change voters’ minds, but each candidate will have fired up their own supporters, and both landed punches on their rivals.