Nationalist Le Pen and Incumbent Macron to Square Off Again for French Presidency

French President Emmanuel Macron and nationalist challenger Marine Le Pen advanced Sunday in the country’s first round of voting and will square off again in two weeks.

The contest once again will highlight the sharp contrast between the two candidates, a rematch of 2017 when Macron won overwhelmingly to become France’s youngest-ever president. The second round is basically a new election, so each has two short weeks to get their message out and rally their supporters to vote one more time.

With all of Sunday’s votes counted, the 44-year-old Macron carried 27% and Le Pen slightly over 23%. There were 10 total presidential candidates in Sunday’s voting, and Macron’s total is better than he garnered in the first round of the last election. The race will ultimately be decided by the resilience of first-round voters to again cast a ballot for their candidates and the two finalists’ ability to attract supporters of the losers.

This is Le Pen’s third attempt to become France’s first woman president. The 53-year-old candidate is a staunch nationalist who pledges to sharply curtail immigration from outside Europe, and Macron accuses her of extremism.

The incumbent routed Le Pen in the 2017 runoff by taking 66% of the vote to her 34%, but polling numbers this year show a much tighter race. An aggregate of several polls shows Macron’s lead down to a 53% to 47% margin, and momentum is clearly on the side of his challenger.

He is attempting to become the first French president in 20 years to win a second term, and polling numbers just weeks ago made that look like a foregone conclusion. And while Macron is a sometimes abrasive politician who largely ignored the campaign trail early in the period before the first round, Le Pen dramatically softened her image and campaigned heavily leading up to Sunday. Macron also refused to debate other candidates before the first round balloting.

The challenger’s populist message, which has been refined from harder positions she espoused in the failed 2017 run, has garnered more of middle- and working-class French voters. The continuing effects of soaring inflation and blowback from sanctions on Russia roiled the economy and tightened the race considerably in the days leading up to first round voting.