Polls open in France

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 France has started voting in the final act in one of the most tumultuous presidential election campaigns in the country’s history.

Voting stations will all close by 8 pm (2 pm ET), and polling companies release usually reliable projections of the final result almost immediately afterward.

Whoever becomes president — Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist, or Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate — will inherit a country bitterly divided.

France is suffering from high unemployment, a stagnant economy and security worries. The government has struggled to cope with immigration and integration.

In the first round two weeks ago, voters rejected representatives of all the traditional mainstream political parties in France, with Macron and Le Pen topping an 11-strong field, taking 24% and 21% of the vote respectively.

The two-round election — which has played out like something of a soap opera — was hit with another scandal at the 11th hour, when Macron’s campaign announced it had been the target of a “massive and coordinated” hacking operation.

Around 14.5 gigabytes of emails, personal and business documents were posted to the text-sharing site Pastebin just hours before the campaign period came to a close Friday night.

Macron’s party said the hackers had mixed fake documents with authentic ones “to create confusion and misinformation.” It is not clear who was behind the attack.

Le Pen has spent the past few weeks battling to extend her appeal beyond her traditional base of supporters, while Macron has been attempting to convince voters that he is not part of the political elite they rejected in the first round.

Macron, 39, has campaigned on a pro-Europe, pro-integration platform. Le Pen, 48, has suggested she would aim to take France out of the European Union, withdraw it from NATO and forge closer ties with Russia.

A crucial vote

Voters in the capital Paris braved heavy rains to get to polling stations. At a town hall in the city’s 18th district, a group of nuns from the Benedictine Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre was among morning voters.

Pascal Bardin, 52, described the election as crucial, saying the future of Europe rested on the vote.

“Depending on how it goes, this vote could threaten global security, national stability and our values,” Bardin told CNN.

French President Francois Hollande cast his ballot in the southwestern city of Tulle. He made the unusual decision not to run for a second term, as his approval ratings have remained in the doldrums for several years following a spate of deadly terrorist attacks.

Macron voted in the northern city of Le Touquet, where he and his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, greeted supporters with handshakes and kisses. Le Pen cast her vote in the heartland of Henin-Beaumont, also in the country’s north.

Campaign gets dirty

The campaign period ahead of the final round has had its dirty moments.

Both candidates traded insults in a bad-tempered head-to-head debate on French television on Wednesday. Macron called Le Pen a liar who sowed division and hatred, while she accused him of being soft on terrorism and said he would preside over a nation enfeebled by its powerful neighbor, Germany.

Less than 24 hours after the debate, the Paris prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation after Macron filed a complaint against Le Pen following her claim during the debate that he may have an offshore account in the Bahamas.

Macron, a former investment banker, who also served as economy minister under Hollande, has struggled to connect with voters in the rural and de-industrialized areas of the country.

He was upstaged in his own hometown of Amiens, when Le Pen made a surprise visit to a Whirlpool factory at threat of closure to rally support while Macron met with union representatives in the same city.

Le Pen’s camp heavily criticized Macron for his celebrations after the first round of voting, labeling him as arrogant.

Will voters abstain?

In the final polls published before campaigning ended on Friday, Macron appeared to have retained a healthy lead. But the unknown quantity is turnout: A campaign launched last week urged voters to stay at home, leave their ballot envelope empty or submit a blank piece of paper instead of a ballot slip.

Official government figures show more people decided to abstain from voting in the April 23 first round of the election than voted for any single candidate — including Macron and National Front’s Le Pen.

It is thought that Macron would be hit hardest by a high abstention rate.

The big challenge for Le Pen is to broaden her appeal. At the end of last month, she announced that she had temporarily stepped down from her position as leader of the National Front. Some saw that as an attempt to distance herself from the party, regarded as toxic by many in France.

But her position in the polls has barely moved since the first round. If Le Pen is elected, it would be one of the biggest upsets in postwar French political history.

Copyright 2017 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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