Update: as of 5pm, the French voter participation was 65.3%, which is the lowest in presidential elections going back at least all the way to 1988:
- 2017 : 65.30%
- 2012 : 71.96%
- 2007 : 75.11%
- 2002 : 67.62%
- 1995 : 66.07%
- 1988 : 70.63%
And according to a separate accounts, the voter turnout was the lowest going back all the way to 1974.
An estimate by elabe/BFMTV estimates the final voter turnout at just 74%, which would make it the lowest since 1969.
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According to the French interior ministry some 28.54% of registered voters have cast their votes in the presidential election by 12:00 a.m. local time (1000 GMT) on Sunday, a lower than expected initial turnout and the lowest at this stage of the day since the 2002 presidential poll, when it was 26.19%. Prior midday turnouts were 30.66% and 34.11% in 2012 and 2007, respectively. A final turnout of 75% is expected at this election; the eventual turnouts in 2002, 2007 and 2012 were all above 80 percent.
Voter apathy did not prevent both candidates from voting for themselves, however, and both did so early on Sunday.
While parallels with the US election in November have suggested that a low turnout may have an adverse impact for Macron, it remains unclear who is the biggest winner from French voter apathy. Pollsters have said abstentions would be highest among left-wing voters, disappointed by Sunday's choice after nine other candidates were eliminated in first round, but it is unclear what a high or low turnout could mean for the outcome. That said, even a modest boost for Le Pen based on early voting patterns would likely be insufficient if latest polls are an indication: Macron was set to win the head-to-head with between 61.5 and 63 percent of the vote, according to the last opinion polls on Friday
As two weeks ago, polling stations at France's European continent opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will run for a maximum of 12 hours. Those in the largest cities will close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT). In France's oversea territories, the voting was held on Saturday. Over 47 million French voters are registered to cast their votes at some 69,000 polling stations.
The stakes are familiar: as Reuters puts it, "Macron, who wants to deregulate the economy and deepen EU integration, is set to win the head-to-head with between 61.5 and 63 percent of the vote, according to the last opinion polls on Friday. Should an upset occur and Le Pen win, the very future of the EU could be on the line given her desire to close borders, dump the euro currency, and tear up trade treaties."
In an analysis posted yesterday, famous French investor Charles Gave said that even a Macron victory would result in "total mayhem" in France as the resulting parliamentary elections would likely lead to broad governance chaos. Furthermore, even a defeat would be seen a victory of sorts for Le Pen: the 48 year-old's vote is likely to be about twice what her party scored the last time it reached the presidential second round in 2002, demonstrating the scale of voter disaffection with mainstream politics in France.
Markets, meanwhile, are confident a Macron victory is assured.
"We increased our equity exposure and added some French stocks after the first round," said Francois Savary, chief investment officer at Geneva-based fund management firm Prime Partners. "The major political risk of a Le Pen victory appears to be disappearing."
After a campaign in which favourites dropped out of the race one after the other, Le Pen is nevertheless closer to elected power than the far right has been in France since World War Two. If opinion polls prove accurate and the country elects its youngest-ever president rather than its first female leader, Macron himself has said himself he expects no honeymoon period.
Macron's task will be difficult: up to 60% of potential voters for the young politician have said they will do so to stop Le Pen from being elected to lead the euro zone's second-largest economy, rather than because they fully support the former banker turned politician. "I don't necessarily agree with either of the candidates," psychotherapist Denise Dulliand, who was voting in Annecy in the mountainous southeast, told Reuters. "But I wanted to express my voice, to be able to say that I came, even if I am really not satisfied with what is happening in our country, and that I would like to see less stupidity, less money and more fraternity." Should Macron disappoint, it is quite likely that the fickle electorate will turn quickly against Francois Hollande's former cabinet member.
Whether Macron's supporters will get their wish to see Le Pen lose, will be revealed at 8pm local time, when the first exit polls are disclosed.
Meanwhile, investors are already setting their sights on the upcoming French parliamentary elections next month in which the new president will try to secure a majority in parliament. According to Reuters, much will depend on how the candidates score on Sunday. Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, on Thursday told L'Opinion daily that winning 40 percent of the vote would be "a huge victory" for the National Front, something Charles Gave echoed yesterday,who said Le Pen's daughter is poised to be a formidable force in 2022 presidential elections.
In any case, whoever wins, the result will be "historic" and will open a new chapter in French politics, with both French legacy parties, the Socialists and The Republicans that have ruled France for decades, swept away from the chance to retain power for the first time in decades, in an embarrassing defeat in which the French population denounced an establishment status quo that has failed them.