The cost of living and the war in Ukraine have been front and center of the political debate ahead of the French vote.
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French leader Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen topped the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, according to exit polls, and are set to face off in the final vote on April 24.
A flurry of early projections and exit polls showed incumbent Macron came first with roughly 28% of the vote, followed by Le Pen on 24%. The different projections showed different tallies but all pointed toward a runoff between Macron and Le Pen in two weeks’ time, with the gap between the two not as tight as some political analysts had been predicting.
Left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came third in the field of 12 with roughly 20% of the vote. Turnout was reportedly 4% lower than the 2017 election.
The surging cost of living and the Russia-Ukraine war have been front and center ahead of the vote.
Support for Macron had jumped following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and his mediation efforts earlier this year. The French president has tried to broker diplomatic settlements between Kyiv and Moscow and called for a cease-fire, while also pushing the EU to take robust action against the Kremlin.
But that momentum dissipated in the run-up to the first-round vote, with Macron being late to his domestic campaign trail due to his busy schedule and the voter polls tightening right up until election day.
The conflict has accentuated higher energy prices and the broader spike in inflation — something that Macron’s government has tried to tackle. But it’s an issue that his opponent Le Pen, who heads up the anti-immigration National Rally party — leveraged significantly in her campaign.
Le Pen, seen as economically left-wing despite being very much affiliated with the far fight in France, has been highly focused on the cost of living. Some of the recent skittishness in markets at the prospect of a Le Pen presidency has been attributed to concerns around the political and economic unity of Europe’s response to Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.
Le Pen has in the past shown sympathies for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and has been openly skeptical about the European Union. She has tried to distance herself from Putin and her campaign staff have denied reports that they were ordered to destroy thousands of leaflets that included a photo of Le Pen alongside Putin.
Back in 2017, the pair also faced each other in the final round of the French elections, where Macron won with 66.1% of the votes, while Le Pen gathered 33.9%. In the first round in 2017, Macron, who heads up the liberal and centrist En Marche party, received just over 24% of the vote and Le Pen 21.3%.
After losing that run-off resoundingly five years go, Le Pen is no longer campaigning on an exit from the EU or the euro, but her ascent to the presidency would likely throw a wrench in the works for the bloc.
—CNBC’s Elliot Smith contributed to this article.
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