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France votes today between incumbent president Macron or populist candidate Le Pen

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's election day in France. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is facing far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a runoff vote today. It's a repeat of their match-up five years ago with some notable differences this time around. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is at a polling station in Paris and joins us now.

Eleanor, thanks for being with us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It's great to be with you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what are voters telling you there in Paris?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I'm in the courtyard of an elementary school here, and I've been talking to voters. There's not huge lines, but people are steadily streaming in. Most of the people I'm talking to are voting for Macron either out of conviction or to block Marine Le Pen. In fact, there's a long tradition in France; it's called building a damn - faire barrage - against the far right. That means you could cross over and vote for another party candidate just to block them. It's broken down a little bit this year because many people don't want to see five more years of Macron either. But I just spoke with a 30-year-old voter, David (ph), who - he just voted for Macron. He doesn't want his work colleagues knowing his politics, so he asked me not to use his last name, but here he is.

DAVID: It's not that I'm fully for Emmanuel Macron, but I think - but he's more of the French and France than Marine Le Pen. We have to show that she's not going to be the president. We have to demonstrate that there will be a gap and not going to be tight.

BEARDSLEY: So I think that how close this race is, that's key to this race, how close the polls will be at the end.

RASCOE: So what are the latest polls saying about where things stand with this race?

BEARDSLEY: Well, right now, Macron has anywhere from 10 to 14 points' lead over Le Pen from 57% or 55% of the vote, which sounds significant. But five years ago, he beat Le Pen with 30 points. And things are different this time around. Just, first of all, look at him. He's not seen as this young genius centrist who's come to unite the country. He has a record now. Many people say he's been a president of the rich, and he's an ultracapitalist, and he's arrogant and disdainful of the little man. Working-class voters say he does not have their best interests at heart.

She has moderated and softened her image and that of her party. And that was - she was helped by a ultra-far-right candidate who was knocked out in the first round. He did all the anti-immigrant and xenophobic talking, so she ran a very good grassroots campaign, say critics, on the economy, cost-of-living issues. And those are the No. 1 issues in France today. And he barely campaigned at all, Macron, only, like, the last two weeks before this second-round vote.

RASCOE: So how different would France be if Le Pen wins?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, very, very different - she's a nationalist populist. She doesn't advocate for leaving the EU anymore because after Brexit, the French don't want to leave. But analysts say her policies are Frexit in disguise. Germany and France, together, they lead the EU. That wouldn't be happening anymore. France would probably be opting out of EU policies, turning inward. You know, France's alliances would change. The U.S. would maybe not be such a close ally with France. She has said that she wants to re-examine the U.S. alliance. Maybe France will be closer to Hungary and even Russia.

The bottom line is, this election, Macron is supposed to win. He's expected to. But the whole key is going to be how close it is. And analysts say it's going to be a lot closer than last time. He will no longer have that same mandate. It'll be much weaker. He's going to have to compromise and consult with others. And analysts say that's not something Macron's really good at. He likes to decide alone.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Eleanor, thank you so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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