France election: Voters prepare to cast ballot in presidential poll

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French voters are preparing to cast their ballot in the first round of the presidential elections on Sunday.

Recent polls have shown a marked fall in President Emmanuel Macron’s lead over his main challenger, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Campaigning has now ended, and voter turnout is expected to be lower than previous elections in France.

Although the race has been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, the main issue for many voters is the cost of living.

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Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen are the firm favourites, but there are 10 other candidates competing to reach the second round on 24 April.

A month ago, Marine Le Pen was trailing Mr Macron by 10 points. Now she is seen as the favourite to challenge him for the presidency in the run-off vote.

If she does make it through to the second round, opinion polls suggest for the first time that a Le Pen victory is within the margin of error.

Mr Macron’s poll ratings were initially boosted by his diplomatic efforts during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but voters have become increasingly concerned by household bills and rising prices.

Ms Le Pen has worked hard to tone down her image in recent years, presenting herself as relatable, moderate and fit for the highest office.

For years, she has maintained an anti-immigration, anti-EU message that has resonated with disaffected voters. But in the final weeks of the campaign, she has focused increasingly on the high cost of living.

Mr Macron is now proposing full employment within five years, cutting taxes for households and businesses, and paying for his programme by gradually raising the retirement age from 62 to 65 – though increasing the pension age is unpopular with voters already facing a spending crunch.

Analysts are predicting that voter turnout will be so low that the record abstention rate of 22.2% set in 2017 will be surpassed.

“We have experienced a strange campaign that was at odds with what we experienced in the past presidential elections,” Frederic Dabi, director of the Ifop polling institute, told the AFP news agency.

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