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French election: What you need to know as Macron and Le Pen square off

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I

t is crunch time for voters in France as centrist incumbent President Emmanuel Macron squares off with far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen at the ballot box in Sunday’s final presidential vote.

With foreign policy an issue as war ravages Ukraine, along with worries over inflation in one of the world’s biggest economies, the stakes could not be higher.

Here’s what you need to know about France’s presidential election.

Who will win?

Opinion polls point to Mr Macron as the likely winner but with a smaller margin than in 2017, when he beat Ms Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote. A Le Pen win cannot be ruled out, even if it is the less likely of the two scenarios.

What will be decisive?

Who do voters dislike or fear the most? Neither candidate has enough diehard supporters to take them to power. So the key is to convince voters the other candidate is worse, with Mr Macron homing in on fears of the far-right and Ms Le Pen banking on voter disenchantment with her opponent’s record in power.

The decisions of left-wing voters will be crucial to the outcome. Mr Macron’s style and policies have upset many on the left and he will find it harder than in 2017 to win enough of them over and keep the far-right out of power.

Voter turnout is also likely to be a factor.

Polls forecast a possible record high number of people who either cast a blank vote or stay at home and do not vote at all in this second and final round.

What happens next?

Whoever wins on Sunday will only have done so after a bitter, divisive campaign and probably with a small majority.

If Mr Macron wins, he would face a difficult second mandate, with little to no grace period and voters of all stripes likely to take to the streets over his plan to continue pro-business reforms, including on pensions.

If Ms Le Pen wins, a radical change of France’s domestic and international policies would be expected, and street protests could start immediately.

Either way, one of the winner’s first challenges will be to win the June parliamentary elections.

What are the main issues for voters?

The cost of living is voters’ top concern, following a huge increase in energy prices and rising inflation. Ms Le Pen has successfully focused her campaign on the issue.

The election campaign started amid the war in Ukraine. Polls showed an initial boost for Mr Macron, but that has waned.

Surveys show voters are unhappy with Mr Macron’s economic policy, but unemployment is at its lowest in years and those polled don’t think any of his opponents would do better.

How Mr Macron handled the COVID-19 pandemic could also play a role.

When do we know who won?

Voting starts at 7am BST on Sunday.

At 7pm, voting ends, exit polls are published and French TV will announce the predicted winner. Official results trickle in through the evening, but the exit polls are usually reliable.

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