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Marine Le Pen, French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party candidate, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron vie in the second round of the French presidential election on April 24.SARAH MEYSSONNIER/Reuters

With an hour left in the French presidential debate Wednesday, Sarah Bokoum and Chloé Holst had seen enough. At a bar in Paris to watch the televised showdown that would help determine the fate of their country, and maybe the European Union and NATO as well, the college students declared themselves disgusted by both candidates, paid for their drinks and got up to leave.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s centrist President, is “doing everything to get rid of solidarity, which is a fundamental French value,” Ms. Bokoum said. “He wants to privatize everything.” Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, the right-wing challenger, has a long history of “racism” – and “people don’t forget.”

After the first round of voting earlier this month produced a rematch of the 2017 presidential runoff, on Sunday Mr. Macron will again defend his vision of a liberalized economy and more united Europe against the populist nationalism of Ms. Le Pen.

This time, the two are much closer in the polls. Analysts say a Le Pen victory, though still unlikely, would represent another coup for the global far right of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro. It would also profoundly shake France and its place in the world, bringing to power a figure who would ban the hijab in public and take her country out of NATO’s integrated military command amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The stakes are unbelievably high,” said Catherine Fieschi, the Paris-based director of Counterpoint, a political consulting firm, and the author of Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism.

But despite the candidates’ sharply contrasting visions and the wide implications of the election result, many disaffected French voters plan to sit out the second round in protest. A public consultation of voters who supported far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, published Sunday, showed that 66 per cent planned to abstain or spoil their ballots.

Both Ms. Bokoum and Ms. Holst supported Mélenchon in the first round of voting – he finished just one percentage point behind Ms. Le Pen – and both were thinking of abstaining in Sunday’s decisive second round.

“If I vote Macron, it’ll be with horror,” Ms. Holst said.

France’s future in the EU and the Western military alliance, not to mention its status as a “universalist” republic, will arguably depend on voters like Ms. Holst holding their noses at the ballot box. For the third time, the French electorate is being asked to form a barrage, or dam, against a Le Pen presidency, as leaders from across the political spectrum call for a “Republican Front” in this weekend’s runoff.

By calling for a referendum on giving French nationals priority in housing and jobs, among other measures to bolster French sovereignty, Ms. Le Pen would “halt the movement toward a more integrated Europe, a Europe with a foreign policy, a Europe with a nascent defence policy,” Dr. Fieschi said. “This could be the road to the unwinding of the European Union and so the unwinding of the euro.”

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A poll published in French newspaper Le Monde on Thursday had Mr. Macron leading Ms. Le Pen, 56 per cent to 44 per cent, in the campaign’s home stretch. (The survey by Ipsos-Sopra Steria had a 1.1 per cent margin of error.) That is much closer than the President’s 32-point margin of victory over Ms. Le Pen in the 2017 election and a far cry from Jacques Chirac’s crushing 82 per cent tally in 2002 against Jean-Marie Le Pen, the current candidate’s father and the founder of her party.

Anxious political leaders and civil society groups have intensified their calls for a unity vote against Ms. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) in recent days. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, has thrown his support behind Mr. Macron, while environmentalist candidate Yannick Jadot asked his voters to back the moderate Mr. Macron “without pleasure but without hesitation.”

In Wednesday’s Libération newspaper, the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees From France published an ad urging the left to vote for Macron, as a safeguard against Ms. Le Pen, who has denied France’s responsibility for rounding up French Jews during the Holocaust.

The far-left Mr. Mélenchon, who scored a surprisingly strong 22 per cent in the first round on April 10 and whose supporters form an important swing block, has been more tentative. He declared that “not a single vote must go to Ms. Le Pen” but stopped short of backing Mr. Macron.

French political observers argue that the shocking closeness of the runoff can be explained by the RN’s canny repositioning, stumbles on the part of Mr. Macron and deep shifts in French political life over the past decade.

Since taking over her father’s party in 2011, Ms. Le Pen has pursued a strategy of “de-demonization” designed to make her far-right party less toxic to voters, including the expulsion of her anti-Semitic father and the rechristening of what was once known as the National Front. She has courted working-class voters and focused more on economic issues, Dr. Fieschi said.

The rise of anti-immigrant polemicist Éric Zemmour, who formed a party called Reconquête! that received 7 per cent of the votes in the first round, has also made Ms. Le Pen look more moderate in comparison.

That shift has coincided with the speedy collapse of France’s established parties, the Socialists and the conservative Républicains, both of which scored less than 5 per cent in the first round. Extreme candidates have become more palatable to the French electorate, as evidenced by the fact that parties of the far right and far left combined to receive more than 50 per cent of the vote on April 10.

Despite his record of lowering unemployment and his relatively strong response to the pandemic, Mr. Macron has been unable to stop his country’s ideological polarization. When the former banker and Socialist economy minister came to power in 2017 at the head of his newly created En Marche! (On The Move!) party, “people said Macron would be a rampart against the extreme right and left,” said Éric Fassin, a professor of sociology at Université Paris 8.

Instead, the President’s liberal economic policies and slick, technocratic persona have provided grist for working-class discontent, exemplified by the gilets jaunes protests over a fuel tax hike in 2018. The political right, meanwhile, has come to dictate the terms of the debate around Islam, immigration and French identity, said Prof. Fassin, aided by a series of traumatizing terrorist attacks since 2015.

The last leg of the campaign has been dominated by the war in Ukraine, where Mr. Macron has a sharp advantage, and cost-of-living issues, where Ms. Le Pen is seen to have an edge.

Throughout the war, the French President has been at the forefront of European diplomacy, holding frequent phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin while helping to arm Ukrainian forces. Ms. Le Pen’s party has faced questions about the millions it has borrowed from a Russian bank, especially in light of her calls for NATO rapprochement with Mr. Putin’s regime and her opposition to arming Ukraine.

“Your interests are tied to Russia. You depend on Russia,” Mr. Macron said during the debate. “You are talking to your banker when you talk to Russia.”

But Mr. Macron’s advantage on foreign policy has been at least partly offset by an unpopular hard line on economic reform, particularly a proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, which he tempered after discouraging first-round results. The attempt to overhaul France’s well-loved pension regime has fed into a sense that the President is out of touch.

“Macron has no idea what’s happening,” Ms. Holst said.

“If I don’t vote, and Le Pen wins, it’s not my fault,” added Ms. Bokoum.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the margin of victory in the 2017 election.

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