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Le Pen vs. Macron: A guide to France’s presidential runoff vote

Here's what you should know about National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

This weekend, French voters will return to the polls for the second round of voting in the country's presidential election.

The election is being watched closely around the world for more reasons than one. Marine Le Pen, perhaps the most visible figure on the European far right, is one of two contenders for the top French political spot, but her rival, centrist Emmanuel Macron, also represents a significant break from the past.

Here is a WorldViews guide to the big vote.

What happens Sunday?

Voters will head to the polls Sunday to cast a vote for the next president of France. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time (voting is extended to 8 p.m. in some areas). Exit polls will be released shortly afterward, with final results expected within a few hours. Whichever candidate has the most votes on that day will be inaugurated within approximately 10 days.

There are two candidates in this, the second round of the French election:

  • Le Pen of the National Front: A high-profile figure in the race internationally, Le Pen is expected to lead the party her father founded in 1972 to one of its best election results. Le Pen, 48, has struggled to move the National Front past its far-right core, but she has seen new support from young voters and female voters. Her policies include pulling out of the euro currency and major restrictions on immigration and free movement across borders.
  • Macron of the En Marche (Onward) movement: In the face of what initially seemed to be a polarized political landscape, Macron — a former investment banker who was educated at elite schools and became a Socialist economy minister — has managed to become the voice of “radical centrism.” The 39-year-old is hoping to become the youngest president in French history, and he aims to do so without the backing of a major party. Voters seem to have been enticed by his moderate rhetoric and plans to lower taxes and expand health care, but critics argue that his policies may fail to entice embittered voters to the polls.

What do the polls say?

The polls show Macron as a clear favorite over Le Pen, with a lead of as much as 20 percent. It's worth noting that the polls were remarkably accurate in the first round of voting. That bodes well for Macron in the second round, which is generally easier to estimate.

Claire Durand, president of the World Association for Public Opinion Research and a professor at the University of Montreal, told WorldViews last month that she thought the second-round votes would be accurate. “They've never missed the second-round vote,” Durand said. “In fact, they usually have it perfectly.”

However, it is possible that Le Pen is undervalued. Notably, there seems to be little appetite among leftist voters to back Macron, despite concerns about a potential far-right presidency.

How did the candidates do in the first round?

There were 11 candidates in the first round of voting, held April 23.

Macron came in first with 24.01 percent of the vote, followed by Le Pen with 21.30 percent, François Fillon of the center-right Republicans with 20.01 percent, leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Unsubmissive France movement with 19.58 percent and Benoît Hamon of the center-left Socialist Party with 6.36 percent. As no single candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote (far from unusual in France), Macron and Le Pen were selected for the second round.

Post-vote analysis has shown that Macron performed best in urban areas, including big cities such as Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon. Le Pen's support was more often in rural areas, including the south and the northeast, where deindustrialization had helped grow National Front support.

Why is this year's election so unusual?

This year, neither of France's major parties — the Republicans nor the Socialists — made it through to the second round of voting.

This is a major shift. Since the current voting system was introduced in 1965, at least one of these two wings of mainstream French politics has been in the runoff; usually both were. This is partly because of some unique circumstances in 2017. Republican Fillon was seriously tarnished by corruption allegations, while the record unpopularity of outgoing Socialist President François Hollande was a big factor in Hamon's slim odds.

However, it also seems to tie into a growing dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties that can be seen in other parts of Europe, too.

What happened the last time a far-right candidate got this far in France?

But history may not repeat itself. Under the younger Le Pen's leadership, the party has notably outperformed her father in regional and European elections.

Additionally, in 2002, the diverse political world united in what was called a “Republican Front” against the older Le Pen. Nearly 2 million people took part in protests, while French politicians of all stripes asked their supporters to vote for conservative Jacques Chirac. This year, a united front is nowhere to be seen; some prominent figures such as Mélenchon have refrained from endorsing Macron.

What happens next?

Even after the results come out Sunday, the election won't really be over.  There will also be an election to select the French Parliament in June — and that vote also has two rounds.

The parliamentary elections are important in France's semi-presidential system: Although a French president is the head of state, the prime minister is the head of government, and much of the day-to-day work of policymaking happens in France's legislature, the National Assembly. Generally, the president and the premier are of the same party, but sometimes they are not. This is known as “cohabitation” in France, and when it has happened in the past, French premiers have gained significant control over the policymaking process.

This is especially important this year, as neither Macron nor Le Pen is likely to have significant parliamentary backing. (Le Pen in particular would struggle, as mainstream parties have vowed not to work with her.) The end result may be uncertainty, instability, or both.

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