French expatriates vote ahead of knife-edge election
A day before France votes for a new president, expatriates and residents in overseas territories in the Western Hemisphere cast their ballots Saturday, with some hoping to stop a global wave of right-wing nationalism from claiming their country.
Hundreds of thousands of French nationals are eligible to vote in the United States, Canada and South America in one of the most unpredictable elections in decades, seen as crucial for the future of a deeply divided country and the beleaguered European Union.
Voting also began Saturday in many of France’s overseas territories, such as the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.
In the rainy US capital Washington, voters cast their ballots in the election’s first round at a polling station at the French embassy.
Adrien Gontier said he was fulfilling his duty as a citizen.
“In the United States, you can see what happens when people don’t vote, or vote badly,” he said. “We don’t want there to be a Trump in France.”
US President Donald Trump’s election in November on the heels of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has prompted concern among critics that the French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen could be next to victory.
Another voter in Washington, Marianne Hart, said she believes absentee voting will influence the elections.
“Everyone who lives abroad or has experienced it has a more open-minded view of the world,” she said.
A total of 119,773 French voters are registered in the United States, including 11,242 in Washington. That is 30 percent more than for the first round of the last presidential elections in 2012, according to the embassy.
Security measures were strengthened at the 69 polling stations across the country, it said, following a jihadist’s killing of a policeman in Paris this week that put the country on edge.
Watch: The race tightens
Polls make centrist and pro-European Emmanuel Macron the favourite, but he has no established party of his own and is a relatively unknown political quantity.
His three close rivals, according to voting surveys, are the anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who would dump the euro currency and return to national ones, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who wants France to rip up international trade treaties and quit NATO, and the conservative Francois Fillon, whose reputation has been sullied by a nepotism scandal.
“The election of either Le Pen or Melenchon would put on a fast-track collision course with (EU officials in) Brussels),” said James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University in Britain.
“The election of Marine Le Pen would make Brexit look trivial by comparison.”
Although Le Pen is in second place behind Macron in the first round, she is seen by pollsters as unlikely to win in the second. Melenchon, by contrast, can win the presidency according to some scenarios.
Polls in the dying days of the campaign put all the candidates roughly on between a fifth and a quarter of the vote, with around five percentage points or less separating them – threatening the margin of error for polling companies.
High levels of abstention and indecision are also a key factor.
Voters in the tiny French island of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, south of Canada’s Newfoundland in the north Atlantic, were first to start voting on Saturday morning.
Results from ballots cast in the territories will, however, remain sealed until Sunday evening after polls have closed in mainland France.
Watch: Top contenders
France was on edge Saturday on the eve of its most unpredictable presidential election in decades, which will take place under heightened security after the jihadist killing of a policeman.
The shooting on Paris’s world-renowned Champs Elysees avenue on Thursday thrust questions of security to the fore of campaigning after nine months of relative calm.
On Saturday, police arrested a man brandishing a knife at Paris’s Gare du Nord station, briefly causing panic as some passengers rushed out of the way.
France goes to the polls on Sunday in an election seen as crucial for the future of a deeply divided country and the beleaguered European Union.
Nearly a quarter of voters are still undecided, and surveys showed until now that the French are more concerned about jobs and the economy than terrorism.
But analysts warned the policeman’s shooting could shift opinions, perhaps handing an advantage to candidates seen as taking a hard line on security, such as far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
In the aftermath of the attack, she called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the European Union and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.
Le Pen and 39-year-old centrist former banker Emmanuel Macron are leading the polls but the race has tightened in the final days and any one of four candidates could reach the runoff on May 7.
Conservative Francois Fillon and hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon have fought it out for third place in the campaign, just a few points behind Le Pen and Macron.
In the wake of the shooting, authorities in Paris have offered additional guards for hundreds of polling stations in the capital, which will come on top of an already major security plan across the country.
“An extra guard or reinforcement of staff will be provided to any polling station that needs it,” Paris town hall official Colombe Brossel said.
Watch: Paris attack marrs French election campaign
Around 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers will be deployed to protect voters around the country.
The killing of policeman Xavier Jugele by 39-year-old gunman Karim Cheurfi on the Champs Elysees was the latest in a string of terror attacks in France that began in 2015. More than 230 people have been killed.
US President Donald Trump tweeted that he thought the attack in Paris “will have a big effect” on the election.
Adelaide Zulfikarpasic of BVA pollsters said: “If it were to benefit someone that would clearly be Marine Le Pen who has dominated this issue throughout the campaign, or Francois Fillon.”
Le Pen moved quickly to present herself as the strongest defender against Islamist extremists.
“This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat.
In an angry response, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accused Le Pen of attempting to exploit the killing, “as she does after every tragedy”.
Fillon, the 63-year-old former prime minister who has stressed his previous experience, promised an “iron-fisted” approach to Islamic terror, saying: “Some haven’t taken the full measure of the evil”.
Macron, a 39-year-old moderate whom Fillon has portrayed as too inexperienced for the top job, said France was paying the price for intelligence service cuts made when he was premier between 2007 and 2012.
Describing the Champs Elysees shooting as an attack on democracy, Macron urged voters: “Do not give in to fear.”
Communist-backed Melenchon, 65, was the only one of the four not to cancel his final campaign event on Friday. He called for a “Europe of rebels”, during a rally in Paris with Pablo Iglesias, the head of Spain’s far-left Podemos party.
“Several Europes are possible, it doesn’t have to be just their Europe,” said Melenchon, a eurosceptic who has pledged to renegotiate treaties with the bloc.
Voting began on Saturday in many of France’s overseas territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, and French citizens cast ballots in the US.
A BVA poll conducted on Thursday and Friday showed Le Pen and Macron tied on 23 percent, ahead of Melenchon with 19.5 percent and Fillon on 19 percent.
Though the race has four main contenders, a total of 11 are in the running, most in single digits.
A clearer picture, meanwhile, has emerged of the violent past of the gunman in the Champs Elysees shooting.
Cheurfi was arrested in February on suspicion of plotting to kill police officers but released because of a lack of evidence.
A serial offender, he spent nearly 14 years in prison for a range of crimes including attacks on the police. He had shown “no signs of radicalisation” while in custody, said France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins.
The shooting came days after two men were arrested in Marseille on suspicion of planning an imminent attack and follows a series of deadly strikes around Europe in the past month, targeting Stockholm, London and the Saint Petersburg metro.
Watch the French Presidential Election live from 5am Monday (EST).