Macron leads polls but turnout is a big question in the French vote

President Emmanuel Macron is the clear favorite in Sunday’s French presidential race, but one big unknown could prove crucial: an unprecedented number of people say they are unsure who to vote for or have no intention of voting at all, which brings with it a great deal of uncertainty about the election.

The pro-European center is still comfortably ahead in the polls. His main challenger, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, appears to have been on the rise in recent days. Both are well positioned to reach the April 24 presidential runoff, which would see them repeat the 2017 election that Macron won comfortably.

There is “no certainty,” Macron warned at his first major rally on Saturday near Paris.

“Don’t believe in polls or commentators that would sound definitive and tell you that … the election is already done, that everything will be fine,” he told his followers. “From Brexit to so many elections, what seems unlikely can happen!”

Scenarios for this year’s second round show that Le Pen has significantly narrowed the gap with Macron compared to 2017 – when she lost 34% support to his 66%.

Polls still place her behind Macron, but much closer, apparently showing the wisdom of her longstanding strategy of toning down her rhetoric and image – allowing her to garner both anti-Macron voice and far-right support.

In recent days, Macron’s campaign has also hit a speed bump dubbed the “McKinsey Affair,” named after an American consulting firm hired to advise the French government on its COVID-19 vaccination campaign and other policies. A new report from the French Senate questions the government’s use of private consultants and accuses McKinsey of tax evasion. The problem drives Macron’s rival and haunts him during campaign freezes.

Many in Macron’s camp fear his supporters won’t be able to go to the polls because they already believe he will win, while those angry at his policies will make sure they vote.

“Of course I have concerns,” said Julien Descamps, a 28-year-old member of Macron’s party, stressing that some people around him “don’t know what to do.”

“You are not fully convinced of Macron, but if you reject the extremes, you should vote for him,” he said.

Macron called on voters to mobilize against both France’s extreme right and the extreme left. “Don’t boo them, fight their ideas,” he said.

In third place, according to the polls, is far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has increased his support but is still well behind Le Pen. Another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, and Conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse are among other key challengers. The first round on Sunday qualifies the two top candidates for the runoff.

The presidential elections attract French voters the most.

Still, voter turnout has fallen from 84% in 2007 to about 78% in 2017, and studies show turnout may be higher than it was five years ago. In particular, young people and working-class people appear to be less likely to vote than retirees and upper-class voters.

Low turnout could have a big impact on voting, pollsters say. They find that a larger proportion of people do not yet know who they will vote for – or if they will vote at all.

Such is the situation of executive assistant Liza Garnier, 45, who lives in the affluent suburb of Montmorency, north of Paris.

“I no longer believe in what politicians say. They make a lot of promises, they say the candidates’ words, and once we’re in power, we’re disappointed,” she said. “I have the impression that more and more people think it’s pointless: who to vote for? For what?”

Garnier thinks the politicians are too far removed from the reality of everyday life in France. She said she could just choose an empty vote, even in the second round when Macron faces Le Pen.

“I want to show that I’m not happy with that,” she said.

The falling purchasing power of French families is one of the main concerns of voters in the face of rising food and energy prices, along with social security, security, immigration and the environment. However, many believe these issues have not been raised as much as they should in this year’s campaign, partly because the war in Ukraine overshadows all other issues.

Kevin, a 26-year-old history and geography teacher at a public middle school who has worked in an impoverished suburb north of Paris, lamented the lack of political debate in this campaign. He describes himself as a “leftist” and said he feels “very disillusioned” with the current French political scene.

Kevin, who cannot be identified by his last name because state officials are required to be neutral before the election, said he was hesitant. But he will not vote for Macron or Le Pen anyway and considers an empty vote to be an option.

Macron, who has devoted most of his time lately to diplomatic talks to end the war in Ukraine, is trying to boost his short campaign ahead of Sunday’s vote by giving multiple interviews to French media and campaigning activities almost every day sets its agenda.

“Friends, you get it: it is now time to mobilize. It’s time to fight now,” he told fans on Saturday.

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