What to Watch For as France Goes to the Polls to Elect a New President

What to Watch For as France Goes to the Polls to Elect a New President

PARIS — After a bitter presidential campaign, a vicious second-round debate and a hacking attack against one candidate, voting is underway on Sunday in mainland France in the final round of the national elections.

■ Voters face two starkly different choices for president: the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen.

■ At 5 p.m. French time, the voter turnout stood at 65.30 percent, according to the Interior Ministry, lower than in the past three presidential elections. Higher turnout is expected to benefit Mr. Macron, and a lower figure will probably help Ms. Le Pen.

■ Most polls close at 7 p.m. in smaller towns and rural areas, where Ms. Le Pen has stronger support. In larger cities such as Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux, the polls close at 8 p.m., and voters there are expected to favor Mr. Macron.

Who are the candidates?

■ Mr. Macron, 39, is a former investment banker and economy minister who has never held elected office. He is a pro-business candidate who wants to overhaul France’s labor market, favors free trade and backs a stronger European Union. His campaign was hit late Friday by a large dump of leaked documents on a file-sharing website. Although there is an official French media blackout on sharing the information, it’s hard to determine how the breach will affect his chances.

■ Ms. Le Pen, 48, is the leader of the far-right National Front party, although she temporarily stepped down from that position to campaign against Mr. Macron. She opposes globalization, backs protectionist economic policies, wants to drastically limit immigration and wants to leave the euro currency zone and organize a referendum on leaving the European Union.

What’s at Stake in the Election?

Quite a bit — for France, for Europe and for the world. The country has a population of 67 million, is the world’s sixth-largest economy and is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear power. It is one of the oldest allies of the United States and is the world’s most-visited country. Since the French Revolution, the nation has often been viewed as a beacon of democratic ideals.

Crucially, France is a founding member of the European Union. If Ms. Le Pen is elected and is able to lead France out of the euro currency zone or even the bloc itself, some fear that could bring about the downfall of the European Union.

A victory by Mr. Macron, by contrast, would be another setback for far-right populists in Europe, bringing sighs of relief in Berlin and Brussels. It would also be a blow to President Trump, who, without directly endorsing Ms. Le Pen, has suggested he favors her candidacy. Former President Barack Obama has expressed support for Mr. Macron.

Why Is Turnout Important?

In the first round of the elections, which featured 11 candidates, the abstention rate was lower than expected, and turnout has historically been higher in the second round. But now many in France are being asked to choose between two candidates they did not support. The latest polls show that about a quarter of France’s electorate are thinking of abstaining.

The turnout at 5 p.m. was 65.30 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. Turnout at the same point was 71.96 percent in 2012, 75.11 percent in 2007 and 67.62 percent in 2002. The figure on Sunday was even lower than turnout at the same stage in the first round, two weeks ago, which stood at 69.42 percent.

Low turnout and a high number of blank ballots (a form of protest vote) are likely to benefit Ms. Le Pen, whose voter base is shown by polls to be more committed than Mr. Macron’s.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron greeted supporters after casting his vote on Sunday in Le Touquet, France. Credit Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Many on the left or right will vote for Mr. Macron in the runoff, if only to bar Ms. Le Pen from reaching the presidency — a French political tradition known as the “Republican Front,” in which mainstream parties ally against the far right.

But there have been signs of cracks in that front. On the right, conservatives who backed former Prime Minister François Fillon in the first round view Mr. Macron as too socially liberal and as an heir to François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, whose popularity has plummeted since his election.

More significantly, voters who supported the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round have struggled with the idea of supporting Mr. Macron and his pro-business policies.

What We Know About the Hacking

The troves of data related to Mr. Macron’s movement, En Marche!, were leaked on the internet Friday night, hours before a legal prohibition on campaign communications went into effect.

Links to nine gigabytes of zip and torrent files were posted under the profile of someone called EMLEAKS on Pastebin, an anonymous publishing website. The archive was shared on the popular forum 4chan and promoted on Twitter by far-right activists, before WikiLeaks gave it extensive exposure online.

So far, the leak appears to mostly involve documents that show the mundane inner workings of a presidential campaign, including professional and private emails, memos, contracts and accounting documents. The Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into the hacking of Mr. Macron’s campaign.

Mr. Macron’s campaign said in a statement shortly before the blackout went into effect that the professional and personal email accounts of some of its staff members had been hacked “some weeks ago.”

It said that all of the stolen documents were “legal” and “authentic” but that fake ones had been added to “sow doubt and disinformation.” It denounced the hack as an attempt to destabilize democracy.

The National Commission for Control of the Electoral Campaign, a French regulatory body, warned on Saturday that publishing the documents might qualify as a crime. It called on the news media and French citizens to “show a spirit of responsibility” ahead of the election.

En Marche! has been the target of hackers since last year. Last month, Trend Micro, a cybersecurity firm, said that a hacking group believed to be a Russian intelligence unit had attacked Mr. Macron’s campaign, sending emails to campaign officials and others with links to fake websites designed to bait them into turning over passwords.

What We Don’t Know About the Hacking

• What is genuine and what isn’t. It will presumably take experts weeks to sift through and assess all the leaked documents.

• Whether different individuals or groups were behind the thefts and the leaks, who they are and what their motives were.

Experts suspect a Russian-linked espionage operation known as A.P.T. 28, or Fancy Bear, may be involved, although there is no firm evidence that the operation was behind the thefts. European and American analysts have determined that the group was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee last year.

The French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at a polling station in Hénin-Beaumont, France, on Sunday. Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press

• Whether the leaks, emerging less than 48 hours before the French go to the polls, will affect the outcome. Because of a blackout legally imposed on TV and radio, news of the leaks is not likely to reach as large an audience as it would usually have. Mr. Macron has a roughly 20-point lead on his opponent in the polls.

Where Are the Candidates Expected to Do Best?

Expect strong showings by Ms. Le Pen in northeastern France, a region with high unemployment, and on the Mediterranean coast, where her anti-immigration message resonates the most.

This is the first time Mr. Macron has run, which makes it more difficult to predict where his support will come from, but in the first round, he did well in Brittany and southwestern France.

Ultimately, this is a direct popular vote. There is no equivalent to the Electoral College in the United States. What matters is getting the most votes nationwide, not carrying certain regions.

Why Is the Margin of Victory Important?

Mr. Macron has led consistently and widely in the polls, with about 60 percent of the vote projected to go his way, compared with 40 percent for Ms. Le Pen.

Even if Ms. Le Pen loses, that figure would represent unprecedented support for the National Front, which has made steady gains in local and national elections.

If Mr. Macron does better than expected, it could be a sign that the “Republican Front” still holds and that many in the French electorate still firmly reject the far right. But if Ms. Le Pen does better than expected, it could be a sign that the far right is taking firmer root in the French political landscape.

In either case, the bigger the margin of victory, the stronger the mandate for the winner. It will also give the victor’s party a lift in the legislative elections scheduled for June.

What Challenges Lie Ahead for the Winner?

The economy is the electorate’s main concern, and the next president will have to tackle high unemployment and sluggish growth while also addressing the worries of blue-collar workers about globalization and immigration.

Security is also a major concern, as reflected in a vicious debate on Wednesday in which the two candidates sparred over their antiterrorism policies and an attack in Paris that occurred just days before the first round of voting.

But the most pressing issue for France’s next president will be the legislative elections. Because neither candidate is from a mainstream political party, both will struggle to get enough representatives elected to the National Assembly, France’s lower and more powerful house of Parliament, to support their agenda.

Although the president nominates the prime minister, that person must reflect the political majority in that assembly, to avoid a government-toppling motion of censure.

Without a majority, the next president could be forced into an uncomfortable collaboration with a legislature and a prime minister of an opposing political persuasion, significantly hobbling his or her ability to pursue goals.

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