PARIS — After one of France's most divisive election campaigns, voters headed to the polls Sunday amid tight security. No candidate has been able to dominate the campaign and become the undisputed favorite in the race.
But though few voters are enthusiastic about the candidates, many said Sunday that they were aware of what was at stake. Here are some reactions from the streets of France as the election got underway.
Little enthusiasm among young urban French: Léon Blum Square in central Paris
In front of a polling station at the Léon Blum Square in the 11th district of Paris, not far from the Bataclan nightclub and the Place de la Republique, four soldiers were patrolling with submachine guns Sunday morning.
The mostly young voters emerging from the mayor’s office, one of the designated polling places, voiced little enthusiasm about the candidates they had just picked.
Sophie Girardeaus, 30, and her boyfriend said President François Hollande is partially to blame for the indecision among younger voters. The couple said Hollande failed to deliver on one of his central promises from the 2012 election, to support French youths, leading to a more general political apathy.
“But all of this comes after Brexit and the Trump victory, so I hope that particularly left-wing voters will still come out to vote against the far-right populists,” Girardeaus said.
Others were more skeptical. “This was an extremely weird campaign, and I did not know whom to vote for until a few days ago. It’s the first time something like this has happened to me,” said a 31-year old who gave his name as simply Ranain. He ended up voting for Emmanuel Macron.
A divided country: Saint-Denis and neighboring Villeneuve-la-Garenne to the north of Paris
In the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, the divisive rhetoric of the campaign was echoed by many who voted Sunday afternoon. A neighborhood with a disproportionately high immigrant population, Saint Denis made international headlines when Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the November 2015 attacks, was killed in a police raid.
Not far from where Abaaoud was killed, voters worried about the impact of terrorism on the election. “If Le Pen makes it, everything will become worse for us. Then the French will show their real faces — I don’t think it is exaggerated to say that there would be violence,” said Ginette Beljour, 40, who wanted to vote for Macron.
Standing in front of a polling station in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Le Pen supporter Stéphane Debuigne, 29, said France needed a political leader who was capable of saying 'No' to the German chancellor or the European Union.
“People like François Hollande always only say yes to them,” he said. “France needs a politician who cares about the people who work and who will fix our immigration problem.”
A turn to the far right: Hénin-Beaumont in northern France
In Hénin-Beaumont, an industrial town deep in France’s northern rust belt, many turned out for Le Pen. Along with neighboring communities, this quiet town is something of a stronghold of her party, the National Front: It has had a mayor from the party since 2014, and it is here that Le Pen cast her ballot Sunday morning. Hénin-Beaumont is also where her campaign is hosting its party for supporters to watch the election returns later Sunday.
David and Linda Renard were walking home from the polling station in a local school with their two daughters. Their Chihuahua, Lili, followed them on a leash.
“I feel like I’ve lost a lot of purchasing power with the euro,” said David, 41, who said he worked in financial services. “My salary was much higher when we were on the franc.”
Linda Renard, 42, a nurse, said she was not bothered by the history of the National Front as she cast her ballot.
Marine Le Pen “doesn’t have the ideas of her father,” she said, referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier who once referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history,” a remark that landed the National Front in the political wilderness for decades.
Marie-Pierre Thibault, 67, a retired midwife who has called Hénin-Beaumont home since 1978, said the National Front has little negative connotation in this town.
“We are very, very happy with our mayor,” she said of Steeve Briois, who is also a member of the European Parliament. “He’s done innumerable things for our village — he renovated the church, for example, and he brought back the carnival, which had disappeared for many years.”
Marine Le Pen “has changed immensely since the last election,” Linda Rinard said. “She’s less blunt, more composed, and it’s clear that she reflects very carefully on what she says.”
For others, terrorism — especially in the aftermath of Thursday’s attack in Paris — was the issue at hand.
Patricia Villain, 50, a nurse in Hénin-Beaumont, said the biggest threat to France was terrorism.
“I hope she remains what she is and does what she says. I hope she will actually, really change things — especially terrorism,” Villain said, referring to Le Pen.
James McAuley reported from Hénin-Beaumont.