The French election is finely balanced.
With the polls showing the race for the presidency much closer than in 2017, and the gap just larger than the margin for error, it is still possible that either the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, or his contender in the run-off Marine Le Pen could win.
While it is too close to call, what is certain is that whoever wins will have a profound effect on not just the future of France, but also on Europe, on relations between Western countries and even on people from the UK.
Here are some elements of Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen’s competing visions:
Mr Macron is no longer seen as the outsider he once was since he swept to power in a radical reshaping of French politics in 2017. The enthusiasm for a new kind of politics that resulted in candidates from the French left and right not even making the run-off in 2017 has dwindled, as he has become established.
In its place, there have been widespread protests throughout the last five years, led by a large group of people who have felt he has not represented their interests – particularly in his drive to simplify employment laws, which could be said to be a mainstay of the French identity.
Mr Macron’s dynamic, sometimes domineering style has been interpreted by some as arrogant, further aggravating those who have opposed him, including the at-times riotous Gillet Jaunes (yellow vests). If he wins, Mr Macron has pledged to go further with his liberalising reforms, and to increase the pension age from 62 to 65. Analysts have said they expect more protests to follow.
Ms Le Pen, meanwhile, has shrugged off her heavy defeat to Mr Macron in 2017, revamping herself and her policies in a bid to seek a wider political base. The legacy of her antisemitic father Jean-Marie hung heavily over her in the past and she has worked hard to reframe her campaign, lessening some of the far-right rhetoric that prompted many who staunchly opposed her views to come out and support Mr Macron, even if they did not much like him.
This time, in a renamed party – National Rally, rather than the previously named National Front – her mantra is a call for a ‘National Priority’, which puts French people first in social housing, jobs and welfare, but also internationally, loosely echoing Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
Because of this, and her regular focus on the need to tackle immigration, she has been accused of being far-right, and there have already been protests against her. Analysts say more protests are guaranteed if she wins.
Mr Macron is a signed-up Euro enthusiast – and has made plain his ambitions for the bloc repeatedly over the last five years, throughout which the Brexit process stiffened his resolve. He currently holds the presidency of the Council of Europe and has used the opportunity to champion solidarity and democracy – also cornerstones of the French identity – as being at the heart of the European project.
His plans for the next five years include enhancing the rights of Europeans, reducing European dependence on imported coal, gas and oil and increasing the bloc’s reliance on its own essential infrastructure and technologies. Among the issues he has repeatedly returned to is the drive for a common approach in the use of European armies, with the aim of making Europe a military power in itself.
In contrast, despite having dropped her desire to leave the EU, Ms Le Pen now says she wants to “reform the European Union from within”. In doing this, she is said to see herself as a natural ally of Poland and Hungary’s populist governments, which have both been heavily criticised for subverting fundamental EU tenets on the rule of European law and collective decision making. Her manifesto says she would seek to gradually replace the European Union with a European Alliance of Nations.
First in line for the scrapheap would be France’s existing relationship with Germany. She said it would be “significantly overhauled”, and French industry must remain sovereign. Existing joint industrial defence programs with Germany, such as the SCAF air combat system and Leclerc tank of the future would be concluded and in a recent news conference she made her position clearer by accusing Mr Macron of not “defending the interests of France” against Germany.
Mr Macron says the election is not just a battle to shape the future of France, but a battle over the future of Europe, and has attacked what he calls his rival’s hidden agenda to leave the EU.
For a while, it looked as though Mr Macron may be the West’s main hope of averting a war in Ukraine, as the French president was having regular conversations and sharing occasional visits with Vladimir Putin. But the invasion of Ukraine made him instantly appear more naïve than he might have wanted, wrongfooted by the Russian leader.
Despite Mr Putin launching a war, Mr Macron continued to try to talk, until the scale and sheer brutality of Russia’s actions became too much and he has since said he has ended his dialogue and is now showing his clear support for Ukraine.
He has stopped short of agreeing with other Western leaders that Russia’s actions constitute genocide, possibly to keep the door open to the Kremlin for future negotiations. Nonetheless, he has backed sending arms to Ukrainian forces and stepping up sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, before the war, Ms Le Pen had been an open admirer of Mr Putin and has said that as president she would block European sanctions on Russian oil and gas. Her relationship with Russia came under intense focus during the TV debate on Wednesday, when Ms Le Pen was forced to defend a bank loan her party had taken from a part-Russian bank.
Her stance has changed a little since 2017. In the previous election, Ms Le Pen said she shared the same values as Mr Putin and that a “new world order” was possible with him, then-US President Donald Trump and her leading their respective countries.
More recently, she has condemned Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine but said Russia should be treated as an ally in the future, proposing a “strategic rapprochement” when the war is over and closer relations between NATO and Russia to counter the threat from China.
Analysts say her winning the presidency would do much to threaten the EU’s common front and sanctions in response to Russia.
Asked about military aid to Ukraine, Le Pen said she would continue defence and intelligence support for Kyiv, but she was “more reserved about direct arms deliveries… because … the line is thin between aid and becoming a co-belligerent”.
As a firm pro-European, Mr Macron is wedded to the established framework of collective Western defence that relies on NATO. France was one of the founding members of the pact, and while it was withdrawn from the command structure that allows the group to take collective action using joint forces from 1966 to 2009, it has taken part in many NATO missions over the years.
Since Mr Macron became president, France has continued to make significant contributions to NATO efforts, despite also undertaking non-NATO operations like its intervention in the Sahel, which it has since withdrawn from.
In demonstrating his commitment to NATO, under Mr Macron, France’s defence spending has risen to the 2% of GDP minimum threshold advocated by the US and he has pledged to continue at that level, with plans for tie-ups with other EU countries.
Ms Le Pen, however, wants France to leave NATO’s integrated command as early as 2022. As previously stated, France was pulled out of it by President De Gaulle in the 1960s and it was only under President Sarkozy that it rejoined. Her supporters say it would not affect France’s NATO membership and would allow France to put its interests first.
Ms Le Pen has also ruled out putting French troops under EU command and is not keen on following the Biden administration’s strategic shift towards the Asia and Oceania region.
However, she still plans to increase defence spending to €55bn, a significant rise from the €41bn spent in 2022.
She also supports an extension to the 10-year Lancaster House strategic agreement treaty with the UK – for cooperation on nuclear and other defence initiatives. Analysts say this is naïve as any plan to become a closer ally to a post-Brexit Britain while renegotiating her relationships with the US, Germany and Russia would be unworkable.
A number of commentators have said that with rising support among the far right, Mr Macron has pivoted to the right from his typically centrist positions, with pledges on immigration coming in its wake.
He has said he wants to reform Schengen to strengthen European borders, to create a national ‘border force’ to shore up national borders, to overhaul asylum procedures to speed up decisions and to expel foreigners who break the law.
But he still has some way to go before he is accused of being as anti-immigrant as Ms Le Pen, whose proposals have elicited previously unseen levels of fear among foreign-born French inhabitants.
She wants to ban the wearing of veils – often worn by Muslim women – in public and also wants to outlaw ritual slaughter – impacting food eaten by Jews and Muslims – if she is elected on Sunday.
She said she will also put a bill on immigration and national identity to a referendum within six months of gaining power, so that, if the law is passed, an estimated 3.5 million people in France suddenly would not have the same rights as those the law decides are French nationals. The bill has to go to a referendum as legal experts say it is unconstitutional.
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Protester tackled to the ground after holding up poster of Vladimir Putin and Marine Le Pen
Those who could find themselves targeted include people who have lived in France for decades, opponents say, and even people who have become French citizens. It is expected to result in those born outside France having reduced access to jobs in the private sector and civil service, and to social housing, healthcare and social benefits.
It would remove the right of foreign-born residents of France to work for – among others – La Poste, EDF, SNCF, and businesses in social and health sectors and would also allow the authorities to impose “criminal or administrative sanctions” on anyone who disregards the rules.
Despite being MP for a constituency in the Pas-de-Calais, Ms Le Pen has not been outspoken about conditions faced by migrants trying to reach the UK, but last week she welcomed Boris Johnson’s plan to send to Rwanda asylum seekers who come to the UK. She told BFM TV she would prefer to see a cheaper system used by France, involving asylum seekers being processed in French consulates abroad.
France has come under scrutiny for the extent to which it is committed to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, with Extinction Rebellion protests seen in the last week in the country’s capital. It has resulted in Mr Macron asserting his enthusiasm for his country’s 2050 net-zero target and backing plans he said will enable them to achieve it.
Among them are plans to massively upscale solar, offshore wind and nuclear and, he said, Europe should bring in a carbon tax on anyone within its borders.
He also promised more public transport nationwide to wean people off cars.
Ms Le Pen has previously espoused climate sceptic views but in her latest campaign has said she will not abandon the targets within the Paris agreement. BFM TV reported she said she wants to swap fossil fuels for more nuclear power and also pledged to relaunch the nuclear and hydroelectric sectors and boost hydrogen production and use.
She has been heavily criticised by environmentalists, however, for including in her manifesto that she will stop future wind projects and gradually dismantle existing wind farms.