As French voters elect a president on Sunday, they are choosing between two visions of France – and two very different people.
Here is an overview of the two candidates:
In just five years, outgoing President Emmanuel Macron has gone from a young political novice to a key global player and heavyweight decision-maker in the European Union who has been deeply involved in efforts to end the war in Russia in Ukraine.
The 44-year-old outspoken centrist, with his relentless diplomatic activism, does not always achieve his ends but has earned his place on the international stage.
At home, he has managed to regain some popularity after ‘yellow vests’ protests against social injustice sent his approval to record highs in 2018. Opinion polls show many French people praise his presidential stature and consider it up to the task of dealing with major global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine.
They also show that he is often seen as arrogant and out of touch with ordinary people.
Macron was notably nicknamed “president of the rich”, especially during the yellow vests crisis. Some critics also point to a perceived authoritarian attitude, holding him responsible for violent incidents involving the police during street protests.
The office of president is his first elected office, although he came with a strong pedigree.
Macron studied at the elite French school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, and was a senior civil servant, then a banker at Rothschild for a few years, then an economic adviser to Socialist President François Hollande.
He emerged from this role behind the scenes of the political scene when he was appointed economy minister in the Hollande government from 2014 to 2016.
A series of political surprises – including a corruption scandal involving a key rival – propelled him to presidential victory in 2017. He beat Le Pen in that race by promising to unleash the French economy to boost job creation and attract foreign investment.
Macron, who describes himself as “a president who believes in Europe”, says the EU is France’s way of being stronger in a globalized world.
A strong advocate of entrepreneurship, he relaxed rules for hiring and firing workers and made it harder to get unemployment benefits. Critics accuse it of destroying worker protections.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he recognized the crucial role of the state in supporting the economy, spending heavily and pledging to support workers and businesses through state aid “what whatever it costs”.
At his biggest campaign rally near Paris earlier this month, Macron paid a moving tribute to his wife Brigitte, the person “who I care about the most”. They could be seen on the giant screens of the stadium kissing.
As first lady, Brigitte Macron, 24 years her senior, has been involved in charities and other programs promoting culture, education and health.
Their romance began when he was a high school student where she taught in northern France. At the time married with three children, she oversaw the drama club. Macron, a lover of literature, was a member.
Macron moves to Paris for his final year of high school. She eventually moved to the French capital to join him and divorced. They married in 2007.
MARINE LE PEN
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, in her third bid for the French presidency, is anything but determined, like her incendiary father who co-founded the anti-immigration party she now leads.
She is as fiery and courageous as Father Jean-Marie, who ran five times for the country’s highest office. Since inheriting her National Front party in 2011, she has worked to break down the far-right wall of fear that has so far blocked her path to the presidency.
Polls show her trailing, but closer than ever to victory. If elected, she would seek to transform French politics and society into her “French first” vision.
She changed the name of the National Front and expelled her father in 2015, as part of her effort to rid the renowned National Rally of the taint of racism and anti-Semitism that has clung to the far right for decades.
Family dramas have long been central to the Le Pen dynasty. She has armored herself over the years and keeps her private life to herself.
When her popular niece, Marion Maréchal, a former party deputy, quit the National Rally, Marine Le Pen managed to prevent it becoming another public family feud. Marechal – whom Le Pen helped raise – took the betrayal deeper by backing his far-right rival Eric Zemmour in the first round of the presidential election.
A cunning politician, Le Pen transformed her own image from that of an aggressive, anti-system partisan into a mild-mannered spokesperson for France’s forgotten.
Le Pen, 53, who has two daughters and a son and is divorced, shares her home with a childhood sweetheart and her beloved cats.
Born Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen in 1968 in a cushy western suburb of Paris, she wrote that she was “raised on the honey and acid of politics”.
Her parents’ marriage ended in a publicly bitter divorce – after which her mother Pierrete Lalanne posed in 1987 for the French edition of Playboy scantily clad in a maid outfit. She said she did it after Jean-Marie Le Pen told her that if she needed money, she should clean up.
Le Pen managed to keep her own children in the shadow of her political life, sparing them the exposure she and her sisters suffered.
Le Pen is a lawyer by training and among her clients before entering politics were immigrants living illegally in France – whom as a politician she wants to deport. This is one of the many contradictions that define Le Pen. Another is her relationship with some members of a now-banned far-right movement she met in law school — a relationship she neither denies nor defines.
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