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French election: Macron vs Le Pen in May 7 run-off vote

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French state television has projected Centrist Emmanuel Macron finished ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday to qualify alongside her for the runoff in France's presidential election, initial projections suggested.

Macron was projected to score 23-24 percent, with Le Pen at 21.6-23 percent, according to several polling institutes.

Some 67,000 polling stations opened Sunday at 0600 GMT under tight security monitored by more than 50,000 police officers for some 47 million eligible voters, who will choose between 11 candidates.

It’s the most unpredictable election in generations, according to Al Arabiya's Paris correspondent.

It’s the most unpredictable election in generations, according to Al Arabiya’s Paris correspondent.

“This was an unprecedented election with a sitting president opting out of running for re-elections for fear of losing because of her falling popularity. On the one hand, we have a centrist candidate who opposes much of what far-right Le Pen proposes, from security policies to her views on Islam,” Al Arabiya’s Hussein Kneiber reported.

France’s 10 percent unemployment, its lackluster economy and security issues topped voters’ concerns.

Turnout was is set to be around 80 percent, polling groups estimated, which would put it in line with 2012 and confound fears of high abstention levels.

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The voters will decide whether to back a pro-EU centrist newcomer, a scandal-ridden veteran conservative who wants to slash public spending, a far-left eurosceptic admirer of Fidel Castro or appoint France’s first woman president who would shut borders and ditch the euro.

Polls suggest far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. But conservative Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, greets supporters during in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Le Touquet. (Reuters)
Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, greets supporters during in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Le Touquet. (Reuters)

The bitterly fought presidential election is crucial to the future of Europe. The outcome will be anxiously monitored around the world as a sign of whether the populist tide that saw Britain vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election in the United States is still rising, or starting to ebb.

Macron, 39, a centrist ex-banker who set up his party just a year ago, is the opinion polls’ favorite to win the first round and beat far-right National Front chief Le Pen in the two-person run-off on May 7.

For them to win the top two qualifying positions on Sunday would represent a seismic shift in the political landscape, as the second round would feature neither of the mainstream parties that have governed France for decades.

Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, leaves a polling booth as she votes in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Henin-Beaumont. (Reuters)
Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for French 2017 presidential election, leaves a polling booth as she votes in the first round of 2017 French presidential election at a polling station in Henin-Beaumont. (Reuters)

“It wouldn’t be the classic left vs right divide but two views of the world clashing,” said Ifop pollsters’ Jerome Fourquet. “Macron bills himself as the progressist versus conservatives, Le Pen as the patriot versus the globalists.”

Months of campaigning has been dominated by scandals which have left many voters agonizing over their choice. Some 20-30 percent might not vote and about 30 percent of those who plan to show up at the polling stations are unsure whom to vote for.

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