VOTERS will today go to the polls in the second round of the French presidential election, determining whether incumbent Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen will emerge as leader of a harshly polarised nation.

Unlike the 2017 landslide which saw Macron brought to power, polling has consistently found his latest battle with Le Pen to be perilously close, with its culminating taking place against the backdrop of a tripolar France split between a belligerent and ascendant far-right, a revitalised and uncompromising far-left and a beleaguered but not yet defeated centre.

The gap widens

Following a televised debate between the two candidates, a snap Elabe poll found that 59% of viewers regarded Macron as the winner. This impression was further bolstered by an Ipsos survey released on Friday – the last official day of campaigning ahead of the final vote itself – in which 57.5% of those questioned announced their intention to vote for the president, against 42.5% for Le Pen.

The National:

Despite the gap between him and his opponent apparently widening, Macron conceded on Friday that Le Pen had capitalised on anger which he had failed to quell among the French people.

Meanwhile, Le Pen has capped her campaign by doubling down on appeals to her far-right base, reiterating her intention to limit immigration, deport foreign offenders and “fight against Islamism”.

The future of the far-right

A victory for Le Pen and the Rassemblement National (National Assembly, formerly the National Front) would be without precedent in France, undoubtedly sending shockwaves throughout the European Union, not least because critics suggest her policies would render French membership of the EU untenable.

Should she lose, Le Pen will likely draw comfort from her party’s best electoral result yet. Nevertheless, as the failed candidacy of the pundit Éric Zemmour demonstrated, Le Pen is not without detractors within the French far-right, and yet another failure to win the presidency may spur some within its ranks to embrace further extremes.

Will young or old win the day?

In contrast to right-wing and far-right candidates in other Western nations, who have traditionally relied on older voters, polls indicate that Le Pen was the second favourite candidate amongst voters aged 18-24 and 25-34 – coming ahead of Macron and behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon – while Macron managed to outstrip Le Pen in the first round of voting largely thanks to voters over 60.

Speaking on behalf of the pollster Ipsos, Mathieu Gallard told the news network France 24 that Macron’s lead with older voters is likely to increase in the second round, and that he may yet overtake Le Pen with the young. However, he added: “I would not be surprised if the 35-to-49 age category has a neck-to-neck result between these two contenders.”

Mélenchon as prime minister?

Even after being narrowly edged out of the running by Le Pen, the left-wing Mélenchon has remained the focus of much attention, given how crucial the 22% of the vote he won on April 10 may be to deciding the next president of France.

Mélenchon himself – who has urged his supporters not to vote for Le Pen, but otherwise “won’t be telling you whom you should vote for” – is looking ahead to parliamentary elections in June, at which he hopes his party La France Insoumise will secure a majority. “I’m asking the French to elect me prime minister,” he said last week.

Macron has refused to be drawn on whether he would accept Mélenchon in that role, saying only: “There will be a prime minister chosen in light of these elections.”

In the meantime, although early fears of anti-establishment Mélenchon voters switching to Le Pen may prove unfounded, the French left does not appear to be rallying behind Macron. An online vote by supporters of Union Populaire, the movement which backed Mélenchon’s candidacy, found a majority of the 215,000 respondents preferred either abstention (29%) or a blank vote (27.6%), with only one third opting to support the president.

‘Neither Macron nor Le Pen’

The frustration of left-wing French youth has been expressed since April 10 through protests taking place across the country. In Paris, numerous high schools were blockaded by pupils, while several universities were closed following the occupation of buildings at the Sorbonne and Nanterre by students.

As 20-year-old Sorbonne student Anais Jacquemars commented: “We’re tired of always having to vote for the less bad of the two, and that’s what explains this revolt. Neither Macron nor Le Pen.”

The National:

A similar lack of enthusiasm has been reported amongst French Muslims, who according to interior ministry figures have been subject to a notable increase in discriminatory acts throughout 2021, as well as a presidential election marked by heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Speaking to Reuters, French Muslim Lisa Troadec described voting for Le Pen or Macron as “a choice between Islamophobia and Islamophobia”.