Twelve candidates, including incumbent Emmanuel Macron, are running for the top post. If neither of them gets more than 50% of the votes, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff on April 24.
Macron wants to become the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Centrist Macron faces a litany of challengers from the political extremes, including Marine Le Pen, the longtime standard-bearer of the French far-right; TV pundit and author Eric Zemmour; and leftist arsonist Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Most analysts said the contest would be a referendum on the rise of the French right, but the war in Ukraine has turned those expectations on their head.
The president proposed a higher diesel tax early in his term, sparking the Yellow Vests movement, one of France’s longest-running protests in decades. His record on the Covid-19 pandemic, the other defining crisis of his presidency, is not clear. Macron’s signature policy during the Covid-era – requiring people to show proof of vaccination in order to lead their lives normally – helped boost vaccination rates but ignited a vocal minority opposed to his presidency.
Macron has campaigned very little so far, refusing to debate with his opponents. Experts believe his strategy was to avoid political mudslinging for as long as possible in order to polish his image as the presidential candidate of all candidates.
For her part, Le Pen has campaigned more mainstream this year compared to her last attempt at the presidency. While controlling immigration remains her campaign priority, she softened her anti-Islamic tone and abandoned her calls for France to leave the European Union – particularly post-Brexit – to attract voters from outside her base.
Political analysts say Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living could pay off, as rising prices for basic necessities and energy are among the top concerns of the electorate.
Many pundits also expected the war to hurt the campaigns of Le Pen and Zemmour, both of whom had previously spoken fondly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen scrapped a campaign sheet with a photo of her visiting the Russian leader, while Zemmour backed down after promising Putin he would never invade Ukraine.
Nathalie Loiseau, MEP and Macron’s first minister for European affairs, told CNN she believes the French president is motivated by “a sense of duty”.
“He’s not doing it for electoral reasons. He’s doing it because he thinks he has to do it,” she said.
But Macron’s decision to forego campaigning instead of seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine could prove a liability, be it for political or principled reasons.
“It’s not worth it. He won’t win much. He knows it. But he has to do it,” Loiseau said.