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France to decide: newcomer or nationalist?

The EU is nervously awaiting the final round of voting for France's next president. Will it be a flashy newcomer or a right-wing populist? DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Paris.

The following question appeared on the front page of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo: "Do we really have to draw you a picture?"

The editors had decided not to go ahead with the usual biting caricature, instead urging readers to vote in order to prevent the right-wing populist, Marine Le Pen, from becoming president. It must surely be clear to everyone that the election on Sunday is about protecting democracy.

The duel between centrist, independent candidate Macron and the radical nationalist Le Pen of the National Front party is not only a historic decision for France, but an event that has its European neighbors biting their nails as well.

Read: Who finances the candidates?

Frankreich Wahlplakate Macron und Le Pen 2. Runde (picture-alliance/Maxppp/L. Vadam)

A hard choice? Macron wants "France together; Le Pen says "Choose France"

According to the most recent polls, liberal Macron is projected to win with more than 60 percent. But is he really unassailable or could there still be some surprises? Election experts and political scientists remain cautious.

"It all depends on voter turnout," Vivien Pertusot, a political scientist at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, told DW.  

Low voter turnout could profit Marine Le Pen because, in contrast to Emmanuel Macron, she has a thoroughly organized party with loyal voters behind her. Macron is dependent on the votes from conservatives, social democrats and left-wing radicals, who only two weeks ago voted for other candidates in the first round.

Read: Le Pen's 'outsider' politics move to center stage in France

France in a state of confusion

Now out of the race, all of the former candidates - apart from Jean-Luc Melenchon - have pledged their support for Macron. The surprisingly successful third-placed former communist has opted out of the usual "republican front" that in the past has stood against the right-wing populists.

Melenchon explained that he is, of course, against Le Pen, but also not for Macron. This development could lead to many voters choosing the "neither, nor" option: they might hand in a white card ("abstention") or no vote at all.

Infografik Frankreich: Mit diesen Forderungen treten die Kanditaten an Englisch

The two candidates' platforms could hardly be more different

Pertusot points out it's important to remember that the French party system has been completely revolutionized. None of the established parties from the political center have managed to send a candidate to the final round of voting. The political scientist believes that French society is bewildered.

"We are in a state of confusion. If you look at the situation, it is difficult to work out which way things should actually go. This is a reflection of a totally polarized society, where we have, for a long time, seen winners and losers. The losers have been almost forgotten by the political establishment. And now they are demanding change."

The Catholic Church in France must be highly criticized for failing to clearly support Macron. Back in 2002, when Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, astonishingly made it through to the run-off, French bishops publically came out against the National Front party. The Catholic newspaper "La Croix" has criticized the bishops for taking a lax position this time around. Jewish, Islamic and Protestant representatives have all distanced themselves from Le Pen and her plans to close the borders and repress Islam.

Bitter battle between Macron and Le Pen

During the short but tough election campaign, both candidates have accused the other of lying. Macron has said that Le Pen is engaged in "scaremongering" and manipulating the voters. Le Pen has turned the tables and accused Macron of the same thing.

"It's always the same litany. You look young on the outside, but on the inside you are old. And your arguments are at least twice as old as you," said the National Front candidate in her attacks aimed at Macron in the only television debate of the election.

Read: Le Pen vs. Macron: Where they stand

Frankreich Wahl TV-Debatte - Marine Le Pen & Emmanuel Macron (Getty Images/AFP/E. Feferberg)

The television debate was decidedly acrimonious

Emmanuel Macron - who has put himself forward as a liberal reformer for the economy, society and the European Union - accused Le Pen of inciting hatred towards Muslims. "The fight against terrorism must not lead to a situation where we fall into their trap. What you're bringing into our country is a trap called civil war and division. You're inciting this by vilifying French citizens based on their religion or background. This is something I would never, ever do," Macron said to Le Pen on French broadcaster BFMTV.

Would a Le Pen victory spark civil unrest?

Marine Le Pen uses the same recipe as US President Donald Trump. She paints a bleak picture of the situation and then presents herself as the only savior who can make the country great again. She is demanding that the borders be closed, that France should do away with the euro and possibly leave the EU, and that it should definitely pull out of NATO.

Le Pen has nothing good to say about Germany and other European neighbors. "We have experienced massive deindustrialization. We have seen our workforce dismissed and a huge displacement of our companies. And today, Mr. Macron, the French people are suffering because of Europe. Yes, because of Europe!"

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Young, patriotic, and pro-Le Pen

Frank Baasner, head of the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg, believes that France under a President Le Pen would run into serious problems.

"The country would be immediately isolated even if she, as president, implements only half of what she has promised. Let us just consider the plan to leave the EU. Having said that, Germany would have to - as with US President Donald Trump - wait and see what happens with Le Pen," Baasner told DW.

Baasner fears there could be social unrest should the National Front achieve an unexpected victory.

"Many people are still not ready to choose between Macron and Le Pen. There is a time bomb ticking behind all this, a lot of dissatisfaction in society. If Le Pen wins, it could go off."

Would Macron be a breath of fresh air?

Emmanuel Macron has declared his unequivocal support for the European Union and its common currency.

"I want a Europe that works faster. A Europe that offers protection and is less bureaucratic. During times of globalization, Europe is more important than ever," said Macron during the campaign.

He believes the bloc is important in protecting France in the global contest against China, the USA, India and Russia.

"If Macron wins and achieves a majority in parliament," says Baasner, "it will herald a new phase in French-German relations, and then, revitalize the whole of Europe."

France's role in Europe and the sluggish economic reforms of recent years, could be decisive in these elections, according to political scientist Vivien Pertusot.

"There is a growing fear of globalization that dictates our daily life and is uncontrollable. In this way, Europe has played a negative role because it supports open borders, free trade and freedom of movement. This has led to the impression that France is no longer master of its own fate. It is this sense of loss of control that Le Pen has promised to give back to the French."

Statistics have shown that the extreme right wing is particularly strong in the north and southeast of France. These regions also report the highest levels of unemployment and the lowest levels of education. On the other hand, Macron has the most support in large cities, such as Paris, and in the richer and more educated west of the country.

Regardless of whoever clinches the presidency on Sunday, neither he nor she will achieve a majority in the parliamentary elections in June. Neither Macron's, "En Marche" movement nor Le Pen's National Front party is represented in the National Assembly. This means that governing won't be straightforward. Coalitions and compromises will be essential and could seriously curb the ambitions of the new resident in the Elysee Palace.

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