France votes in pivotal presidential election
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France votes in pivotal presidential election

Centrist Macron faces off against far-right Le Pen, with the candidates offering starkly different views for country’s future

  • A Jewish man looks at election posters outside the French consulate in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2017 during the second round of the French presidential vote. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)
    A Jewish man looks at election posters outside the French consulate in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2017 during the second round of the French presidential vote. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)
  • This combination of pictures made on April 23, 2017 shows French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron, left, and Marine Le Pen, right, posing in Paris. (Eric Feferberg, Joël Saget/AFP)
    This combination of pictures made on April 23, 2017 shows French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron, left, and Marine Le Pen, right, posing in Paris. (Eric Feferberg, Joël Saget/AFP)
  • French citizens wait in line to vote at Collège Stanislas in Montreal, Canada, Saturday, May 6. (Catherine Legault/AFP)
    French citizens wait in line to vote at Collège Stanislas in Montreal, Canada, Saturday, May 6. (Catherine Legault/AFP)
  • French citizens vote at Collège Stanislas in Montreal, Canada, Saturday, May 6. (Catherine Legault/AFP)
    French citizens vote at Collège Stanislas in Montreal, Canada, Saturday, May 6. (Catherine Legault/AFP)
  • This file photo taken on April 29, 2017 in Poitiers, central France shows French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, center, campaigning ahead of the second and final round of the presidential elections on May 7, 2017. (Eric Feferberg/AFP)
    This file photo taken on April 29, 2017 in Poitiers, central France shows French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, center, campaigning ahead of the second and final round of the presidential elections on May 7, 2017. (Eric Feferberg/AFP)
  • French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen (L) arrives at the Alteo aluminium plant in Gardanne, southern France, on April 30, 2017. (AFP / STR)
    French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen (L) arrives at the Alteo aluminium plant in Gardanne, southern France, on April 30, 2017. (AFP / STR)
  • People gather in front of the home of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in Le Touquet, northeastern France on May 6, 2017, a day before French voters go to the polls to choose between Macron, a pro-European centrist, and his far-right rival of the Front National party, Marine Le Pen. (Philippe Huguen/AFP)
    People gather in front of the home of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in Le Touquet, northeastern France on May 6, 2017, a day before French voters go to the polls to choose between Macron, a pro-European centrist, and his far-right rival of the Front National party, Marine Le Pen. (Philippe Huguen/AFP)
  • A French citizen residing in Mexico casts her vote at the Lycée Franco-Mexicain in Mexico City on May 6, 2017. (Yuri Cortez/AFP)
    A French citizen residing in Mexico casts her vote at the Lycée Franco-Mexicain in Mexico City on May 6, 2017. (Yuri Cortez/AFP)

PARIS (AFP) — French voters went to the polls Sunday to pick a new president, choosing between young centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a watershed election for the country and Europe.

Polling day follows an unprecedented campaign marked by scandal, repeated surprises and a last-minute hacking attack on Macron, a 39-year-old who has never held elected office.

The run-off vote pits the pro-Europe, pro-business Macron against anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen, holders of two radically different visions that underline a split in Western democracies.

Le Pen, 48, has portrayed the ballot as a contest between the “globalists” represented by her rival — those in favor of open trade, immigration and shared sovereignty — versus the “nationalists” who defend strong borders and national identities.

Benedictine monks cast their ballots in the second round of the French presidential elections, at a polling station in Solesmes, France, on May 7, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jean-Francois Monier)
Benedictine monks cast their ballots in the second round of the French presidential elections, at a polling station in Solesmes, France, on May 7, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jean-Francois Monier)

“The political choice the French people are going to make is clear,” Le Pen said in her opening remarks during an often vicious debate between the pair on Wednesday night.

The last polling showed Macron — winner of last month’s election first round — with a widening lead of around 62 percent to 38 percent before the hacking revelations on Friday evening. A campaigning blackout entered into force shortly after.

French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen speaks during a campaign meeting in Ennemain, northern France, on May 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen speaks during a campaign meeting in Ennemain, northern France, on May 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)

Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were dumped online and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at “democratic destabilization.”

France’s election authority said publishing the documents could be a criminal offense, a warning heeded by traditional media organisations but flouted by Macron’s opponents and far-right activists online.

“We knew that there were these risks during the presidential campaign because it happened elsewhere. Nothing will go without a response,” French President Francois Hollande told AFP on Saturday.

Winds of change

US intelligence agencies believe state-backed Russian operatives were behind a massive hacking attack on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign ahead of America’s presidential election last November.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the French hack, but the government and Macron’s team previously accused the Kremlin of trying to meddle in the election — accusations denied in Moscow.

Whoever wins Sunday’s vote it is set to cause profound change for France, the world’s sixth-biggest economy, a permanent member of the UN security council and a global military power.

It is the first time neither of the country’s traditional parties has a candidate in the final round of the presidential election under the modern French republic, founded in 1958.

French independent centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron shakes hands to supporters as he campaigns in Rodez, southern France, Friday, May 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French independent centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron shakes hands to supporters as he campaigns in Rodez, southern France, Friday, May 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Macron would be France’s youngest-ever leader and was a virtual unknown three years ago when he was named economy minister, the launchpad for his sensational presidential bid.

He left Hollande’s Socialist government in August and formed En Marche (On the Move), a political movement he says is neither of the left nor the right and which has attracted 250,000 members.

The ex-investment banker’s program pledges to cut state spending, ease labor laws, boost education in deprived areas and extend new protections to the self-employed.

He is also fervently pro-European and wants to re-energize the 28-member European Union, following Britain’s referendum vote last summer to leave.

“France is not a closed country. We are in Europe and in the world,” Macron said during Wednesday’s debate.

But Le Pen is hoping to spring a shock that would resonate as widely as Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU or the unexpected triumph of US President Donald Trump.

First round winners

National Front leader Le Pen sees herself as part of the same backlash against globalization that has emerged as a powerful theme in the US and in recent ballots in Britain, Austria and the Netherlands.

She has pledged to organize a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU and wants to scrap the euro, which she has dubbed a “currency of bankers.”

She has also vowed to reduce net immigration to 10,000 people a year, crack down on outsourcing by multinationals, lower the retirement age and introduce hardline measures to tackle Islamic extremists.

Many voters still see her party as anti-Semitic and racist despite her six-year drive to improve its image.

Ballots with the names of the two French presidential candidates are placed on a table at a polling station in Saint-Leu, Reunion, on May 7, 2017, during the second round of the French presidential election. (AFP Photo/Richard Bouhet)
Ballots with the names of the two French presidential candidates are placed on a table at a polling station in Saint-Leu, Reunion, on May 7, 2017, during the second round of the French presidential election. (AFP Photo/Richard Bouhet)

Macron topped the first round of the presidential election on April 23 with 24.01 percent, followed by Le Pen on 21.30 percent, in a crowded field of 11 candidates.

The results revealed Macron was favored among wealthier, better educated citizens in cities, while Le Pen drew support in the countryside as well as poverty-hit areas in the south and rustbelt northeast.

Voting for the run-off started for French voters in North America and some overseas territories on Saturday.

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