Polls open in first round of France’s presidential election

Marine Le Pen vs Emmanuel Macron in France Presidential elections

Polls have opened across France for the first round of the country’s presidential election, where up to 48 million eligible voters will be choosing between 12 candidates.

President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a second five-year term, with a strong challenge from the far right.

Polls opened at 8am local time on Sunday and close at 7pm (6pm BST) in most places and at 8pm in some larger cities.

France operates a manual system for elections: Voters are obliged to cast ballots in person, ones that will be hand-counted when the voting closes.

Unless someone gets more than half of the nationwide vote, there will be a second and decisive round on Sunday April 24.

Bundled up against an April chill, voters lined up to cast ballots at a polling station in southern Paris on Sunday before it opened.

Once inside, they placed their paper ballots into envelopes and then into a transparent box, some wearing masks or using hand gel as part of Covid-19 measures.

Aside from Mr Macron, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon are among the prominent figures vying to take the presidential Elysee.

Mr Macron, a political centrist, for months looked like a shoo-in to become France’s first president in 20 years to win a second term.

But that scenario blurred in the campaign’s closing stages as the pain of inflation and of pump, food and energy prices roared back as dominant election themes for many low-income households. They could drive many voters on Sunday into the arms of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Mr Macron’s political nemesis.

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

With populist Viktor Orban winning a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister days ago, eyes have now turned to France’s resurgent far-right candidates — especially National Rally leader Ms Le Pen, who wants to ban Muslim headscarves in streets and halal and kosher butchers, and drastically reduce immigration from outside Europe.

This election has the potential to reshape France’s post-war identity and indicate whether European populism is ascendant or in decline.

Meanwhile, if Mr Macron wins, it will be seen as a victory for the European Union.

Observers say a Macron re-election would spell real likelihood for increased cooperation and investment in European security and defence — especially with a new pro-EU German government.

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