Low turnout as France goes to the polls to elect new president

Paris, France – Voting is under way in the French presidential election which has been characterised by demagoguery and the lack of a political agenda.

Voting started at 8am and will end at 8pm (18:00 GMT) on Sunday, when the first projections of results are expected to be broadcast on French television channels.

Turnout stood at 65 percent at 5pm, down from the 69 percent recorded at the same time in 2017, according to the Interior Ministry.

The incumbent Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking a second term, seemed like a runaway for most of the campaign, banking on his “statesman” role in the Russia-Ukraine war. If he were to succeed, he will become the first president in 20 years, since Jacques Chirac, to do so.

But that view is no longer on solid ground as his rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen – praised by many for leading a strong campaign and refashioning herself into a ‘moderate’ politician – has gained on Macron in the last few days.

Le Pen, in stark contrast to Macron, launched a campaign trail that largely focused on domestic issues, particularly on purchasing power, which voters said was their primary concern.

Julie, a 26-year-old graphic designer, said she is ambivalent about the election. “It’s not that I haven’t paid attention to it, but more that there are more important things happening right now such as climate change,” she said.

She declined to say who she was voting for but said she was content with Macron’s first term.

“He has had a tough five years,” she said. “The coronavirus pandemic, the Yellow Vests protests, the Ukraine war… it hasn’t been easy for him.”

INTERACTIVE_French_Elections_who_are_the_candidates_21-03-2022
(Al Jazeera)

Julien, 51, a computer scientist, said the campaign practically ignored the “small” candidates who had polled very low.

“There has been a real predominance of the big candidates,” he said, standing in front of a polling station.

“We have heard little or nothing from the small candidates, except during the last week of the campaign.”

He’s confident that Macron will win again. “He will succeed thanks to his tactics of taking the voters from both the centre left and the traditional right,” he added.

If no candidate wins more than half the votes, the two frontrunners will head into the second round of elections on April 24. In the 2017 election, Macron won the second round by a landslide.

For Francoise Boucek, a visiting research fellow and associate of the Centre for European Research, the two-week period following the first round will be highly significant.

“It’s interesting to see the repositioning that is required right after the first round, in a matter of hours,” she said. “The other parties will have to mobilise their leadership and decide what to do and what to advise their voters.”

Boucek said that the “fed up with politicians” attitude is a concern for the candidates but particularly worrying for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is polling in third place.

“On the assumption that it’s Le Pen versus Macron, who is Mélenchon going to counsel his voters to support?” she asked. “He’s been going after Macron, criticising him all along.”

According to Boucek, the suspense might incentivise voters to participate even more in the second round, especially as abstention is projected to hit a record high.

“In the past few weeks, especially over the past few days, things have turned around quite a lot,” she said. “It’s been a slow start but an exciting finish.”

Julien stands in front of a polling station.
Julien, 51, said the ‘small’ candidates barely had any visibility during the campaigning [Lina Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

Some 48.7 million voters are registered across France to cast ballots.

Inside a polling station, one woman turned to her friends after casting her vote. “There you go, one good thing done!” she said.

The head of the Maternelle Kindergarten polling station in the third arrondissement said there has been a steady number of people coming in to vote since the morning.

“We never get bored on Election Day,” he said. “Today has been quite busy. People usually turn out more for the presidential elections.”

Analysts fear that the 2002 record of French voters boycotting a first round – 28.4 percent – could be beaten, with the 2017 absentee rate of 22.2 percent almost sure to be exceeded.

In the overseas territories, where voting was under way, the participation rate has been low so far. Nearly 37.08 percent of people had voted in Guadeloupe, 34.6 percent in Guyana, 35.1 percent in Martinique, 44.4 percent in St-Pierre-et-Miquelon, and 12.34 percent in Polynesia, according to the official data by the prefecture, BFMTV news reported.