Polls have opened in France, culminating a presidential election campaign that many French say is the country’s most acrimonious and contentious in its modern history, one that could decide whether it stays the course of globalization or adopts a new, separate path outside of the European Union.
In a race dominated by the issues of jobs, immigration and security, the choice before voters in this second and final round Sunday is stark, with centrist, pro-EU former economy minister Emmanuel Macron facing nationalist, anti-immigration crusader Marine Le Pen.
Surveys going into Sunday suggested Macron has a substantial lead with 63 percent support against Le Pen’s 37 percent.
Both candidates were mobbed by journalists as they cast their ballots at separate locations. Macron voted in the coastal town of Le Tourquet in northern France alongside his wife, Brigitte Macron.
Le Pen has cast her ballot in Henin-Beaumont, a small northern town controlled by her National Front party.
Outgoing President Francois Hollande also voted Sunday in his political fiefdom of Tulle in southwestern France.
While Macron is widely favored by pollsters to win the election, it is Le Pen, her anti-EU position and her drive to stop the flow of Muslim immigration to France who is drawing world attention to the race.
“We are being submerged by a flood of immigrants that are sweeping all before them. There are prayers in the street, cafes that ban women, and young women who get threatening looks if they wear a skirt. I will say when I become president that this is not the French way,” Le Pen said at a rally in April. She calls for the expulsion of Islamists, the closure of mosques whose imams preach extremism, cuts in immigration, scrapping the euro, and a referendum on France’s EU membership.
Le Pen’s main reason for opposing the EU is similar to the one cited by British proponents of Brexit: EU’s policies on the freedom of movement mean it is the EU, and not individual countries, that controls borders.
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Macron has a starkly different view. The former banker has repeatedly said he believes there is no turning back on globalization.
“The free movement of people between European Union countries is now a reality, with undeniable gains in economic matters, but also in culture and education or in daily life for cross-border workers,” Macron said on his campaign website.
Macron is staunchly pro-EU but said he wants reforms to make the grouping more democratic and has warned that continuing business as usual with the EU will trigger a Frexit, or a French exit similar to Britain’s.
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Macron’s view is held by many urban, largely affluent voters who see their nation as a cosmopolitan experiment that has worked and globalization as not only inevitable, but the key to future economic prosperity.
Le Pen’s message has resonated largely among those who see their future threatened by crony capitalism and a destruction of French native culture. Her strongholds are largely in areas of northeastern France where factory and steel plant closures have killed thousands of jobs, pushing France’s unemployment rate to nearly 10 percent, among the highest in Europe.
France’s deep divisions were clear in a final, vicious debate where the anger, bitterness and personal dislike between the two candidates were on display to 15 million viewers three days before the election.
“The high priestess of fear is sitting in front of me,” Macron said. Le Pen told Macron, “You are the France of submission.”
Turnout is expected to be high Sunday, and security was tightened around the country.
A VOA correspondent, Luis Ramirez, visiting one of Paris’ polling stations in the first hour of voting, reported a long line of people waiting to cast ballots, despite a steady rain.
Officials say, however, voter turnout at midday across the country was a bit lower that at the same time in 2012, standing at just over percent.
The government deployed a security force of 50,000 police officers, soldiers and private security guards to watch polling stations in Paris, Nice and other cities.
France remains under a state of emergency following a string of Islamist extremist attacks that have killed more than 200 people over the past two years.
The Islamic State terrorist group, in its online propaganda magazine, called for election day attacks.
Outgoing President Francois Hollande, meanwhile, has promised to respond to what Macron’s movement, En Marche, said was the hacking of its computers Friday and the leak of thousands of campaign documents that were posted along with fake ones on social media sites.