French Voters Head to the Polls to Pick a New President

After months of improbable twists in its campaign to pick a president, France hurtled toward a choice Sunday with voters opting between a far-right firebrand who wants to deconstruct modern Europe and a centrist political neophyte who has promised to revive it.

Under clouds and a cool spring rain across much of the country, voters from the chic cafe neighborhoods of Paris to the struggling postindustrial towns of the French countryside made their way to polling stations for an election in which turnout is expected to top 75 percent.

Pre-election surveys showed centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron enjoying a wide lead over populist challenger Marine Le Pen. But following a campaign studded with surprises, France was braced at least for the possibility of one more.

“I’m anxious,” said 47-year-old Sylvie Dartigues, a professional coach who cast her ballot amid the vaulted ceilings of Paris’s 17th-century Place des Vosges, a former royal residence that was also home to Victor Hugo. “I absolutely don’t want Marine Le Pen to be president. She represents everything that’s against my values: racism, intolerance and no real plan for the country.”

Ninety miles away, in the small northern city of Laon, 66-year-old Lionel Abenton said he had voted for Le Pen because she wants to crack down on immigration and shows “loyalty to the French people.”

She also stands up to globalization, which, waving his hand down main street as he enumerated the stores that have closed, Abenton blamed for the decline of the city that has been his home all his life. “It’s Europe that decides,” he said ruefully.

Across France, voting was sluggish compared with previous elections. About 28 percent of the country had cast ballots by noon, down from the past two presidential contests in 2007 and 2012.

The election in a country beleaguered by chronically high unemployment and recurrent mass terrorist attacks will end in a historic decision no matter whom the majority among tens of millions of French voters select.

The dominant two parties of France’s Fifth Republic have both been eliminated. The two candidates who remain, Le Pen and Macron, have both traced an outsider’s path as they have sought residence at the Élysée Palace.

Le Pen, 48, is the second-generation leader of a party long relegated to the French political fringe but now maneuvering to the heart of the country’s unhappy political discourse with its attacks on immigration and the European Union.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Griff Witte and Isaac Stanley-Becker