French voters are picking a new president, choosing between Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, in an election crucial for both France and the European Union.
The battle for the top job at the Elysee Palace has been the most divisive in a generation.
Yesterday’s runoff vote pits the pro-Europe, pro-business Macron (39), against anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen (48) two radically different visions that underline a split in Western democracies.
Le Pen has portrayed the ballot as a contest between the “globalists” represented by her rival – those in favour of open trade, immigration and shared sovereignty – versus the “nationalists” who defend strong borders and national identities.
“The political choice the French people are going to make is clear,” she said in her opening remarks during a heated debate between the pair on Wednesday night.
Polls opened on the mainland at 06:00 GMT yesterday in 66 546 polling stations after a campaign marked by surprises and a hacking attack on Macron.
Voting at most polling stations closed at 17:00 GMT, except those in big cities which will stay open an hour longer.
Blandine, a French voter who did not provide her last name, said she voted for Le Pen “just to piss off people”.
Speaking from the 10th arrondissement of Paris, Blandine explained she is “sick” of the mainstream political establishment. Although she doesn’t expect Le Pen to win, Blandine voted for the far-right candidate “so her results are higher”.
Daniel, another Le Pen voter, had just returned from attending a church service when he spoke to Al Jazeera. “If Macron wins, it will be very difficult for France,” he said, accusing the centrist candidate of seeking to raise taxes and increase immigration.
“Le Pen is better than Macron for this country, of course,” he said, adding: “I don’t agree with everything she says.”
The last opinion poll showed Macron — winner of last month’s election first round — with a widening lead of around 62 percent to 38 percent before the hacking revelations on Friday evening.
A campaigning blackout entered into force shortly afterwards.
Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were dumped online and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at “democratic destabilisation”.
Kenneth Grey, a retired FBI special agent and lecturer at the University of New Haven, said he is not surprised by the hacking attack.
“It certainly does seem to be the new way to try to affect politics in other countries,” he said. “Hack into their email, release the contents, and if there is embarrassing information there, it may very well cause a swing in the election.”
Grey said that “unless there is a smoking gun within these emails”, he does not believe it will have an effect on the election result.
France’s election authority said publishing the documents could be a criminal offence, a warning heeded by traditional media organisations but flouted by Macron’s opponents and far-right activists online.
“We knew that there were these risks during the presidential campaign because it happened elsewhere. Nothing will go without a response,” French President Francois Hollande said on Saturday.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the French hack, but the government and Macron’s team previously accused Russia of trying to meddle in the election — accusations denied in Moscow.
Whoever wins yesteray’s vote it is set to cause profound change for France, the world’s sixth-biggest economy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a global military power. — Al Jazeera