The French go to the polls on Sunday to vote for their next president in a run-off election where they will pick between independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and Front National leader Marine Le Pen.
They face a choice between two radically different visions for the eurozone’s second-largest economy. Mr Macron, a 39-year old rookie politician whose En Marche! (On the move) startup movement is only a year old, is a staunch defender of the postwar liberal order and the EU. Ms Le Pen has campaigned on a platform of nationalism and “intelligent protectionism,” arguing that globalisation has hurt the ordinary French people. She wants to leave the euro and put up trade barriers.
The election represents a litmus test of the populist tide that has shaken western democracies and resulted in the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, and the UK’s vote for Brexit.
Sunday’s contest marks the culmination of a brutal campaign characterised by unprecedented twists and turns, including the collapse of the traditional mainstream candidates and the early frontrunner François Fillon’s campaign derailed by embezzlement allegations.
The latest drama unfolded on Friday when Mr Macron’s campaign revealed that En Marche! was the victim of a “massive and co-ordinated” hacking operation in which around nine gigabytes of data were posted online to Pastebin, a document-sharing site that allows anonymous posting. The documents, posted on Friday night, appeared to contain details of emails and financial data from Mr Macron’s campaign. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for releasing the files.
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As the campaign drew to a close on Friday, Mr Macron appeared to be confident that he would secure a victory, announcing that he has already decided who to appoint as his prime minister. Following a gruelling televised debate on Wednesday, polls gave him a 24-point lead over Ms Le Pen, his best margin to date.
If Mr Macron wins the next challenge will be to try to win a majority in the National Assembly in the legislative elections in June, in order to push through his package of reforms. To secure a majority Mr Macron would need En Marche! to win 290 seats. An Opinionway-SLPV Analytics poll on Thursday found that En Marche could get between 249 and 286 seats in June.
However high levels of abstention could play into the hands of Ms Le Pen, whose diehard supporters are more likely to turn out to vote. Mr Macron acknowledged this last week when he called on people to vote, saying: “In the second round, you choose the candidate who perhaps was not your first choice.”
The official campaign ended on Friday at midnight. After this point polls and statements by candidates are forbidden from being published until preliminary results are announced at 8pm on Sunday.