By SYLVIE CORBET, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) – President Emmanuel Macron is in pole position to be re-elected Sunday in the second round of the French presidential election, but his lead over his far-right rival Marine Le Pen depends on a major uncertainty: voters who decide to stay home.

A victory in Sunday’s runoff would make Macron the first French president in 20 years to win a second term.

All opinion polls in recent days are converging on a victory for the 44-year-old pro-European centrist. Still, the margin over its nationalist rival looks uncertain, varying from 6 to 15 percentage points, according to the polls.

Polls are also predicting possibly record numbers of people voting blank or staying home and not voting at all in this second and final round.

Political cartoons about world leaders

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The April 10 first-round vote eliminated 10 other presidential candidates. Who becomes France’s next leader will largely depend on what the people who backed those losing candidates do on Sunday.

The question is a difficult one, especially for left-leaning voters who don’t like Macron but also don’t want to see Le Pen in power. A second term for Macron hinges in part on their mobilization, prompting the French leader to issue multiple appeals to leftist voters in recent days.

“Think of what British citizens were saying a few hours before Brexit or (people) in the United States before Trump was elected: ‘I’m not going, what’s the point?’ I can tell you that they regretted it the next day,” Macron warned this week on France 5.

“So if you want to avoid the unthinkable…choose for yourself,” he urged wavering French voters.

The two rivals both appeared combative in the final days before Sunday’s election, notably clashing in a one-on-one televised debate on Wednesday.

Macron argued that the loan Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank made it unfit to deal with Moscow amid its invasion of Ukraine. He also said his plan to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would spark a “civil war” in the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

“When someone explains to you that Islam equals Islamism equals terrorism equals a problem, that is clearly called the far right,” Macron said Friday on France Inter.

In his victory speech in 2017, Macron promised to “do everything” during his five-year term so that the French “no longer have any reason to vote for the extremes”.

Five years later, this challenge has not been met. Le Pen cemented his place on the French political scene, the result of a years-long effort to rebrand himself as less extreme.

Le Pen’s campaign this time sought to appeal to voters struggling with soaring food and energy prices amid the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. The 53-year-old candidate said reducing the cost of living would be a top priority if elected France’s first female president.

She slammed Macron’s “calamitous” presidency at her last rally in the northern town of Arras.

“I’m not even talking about immigration or security for which, I believe, every Frenchman can only see the failure of Macron’s policy… his economic record is also catastrophic,” she said. declared.

Political analyst Marc Lazar, director of the Center for History at Sciences Po, told the AP he believed Macron would win again. Le Pen “has this lack of credibility,” he said.

But if Macron is re-elected, “there is a big problem”, he added. “A large part of the people who are going to vote for Macron, they are not voting for this program, but because they reject Marine Le Pen.”

He said this means Macron will face a “great level of distrust” in the country.

Macron has pledged to change the French economy to make it more independent while protecting social benefits at the same time. He said he would also continue to push for a stronger Europe.

His first term was rocked by protests by yellow vests against social injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. This notably forced Macron to delay a key pension reform, which he said he would relaunch soon after his re-election, to gradually raise the minimum retirement age in France from 62 to 65. He says it’s the only way to maintain retiree benefits.

The French presidential election is also closely followed abroad.

In an opinion piece published in several European newspapers on Thursday, center-left leaders in Germany, Spain and Portugal urged French voters to choose him over his nationalist rival. They warned against “populists and the extreme right” who consider Putin “as an ideological and political model, reproducing his chauvinistic ideas”.

A victory for Le Pen would be a “traumatic moment, not only for France, but for the European Union and for international relations, in particular with the United States,” Lazar said, noting that Le Pen “wants a relationship distance between France and the United States”.

Either way, Sunday’s winner will soon have to face another hurdle in order to be able to govern France: a legislative election in June will decide who controls the majority of seats in France’s National Assembly.

Already, the fighting looks tough.

AP reporters Catherine Gaschka and Jeffrey Schaeffer contributed to this story.

Follow AP’s coverage of the French elections at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022

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