PARIS — After months of improbable twists in its campaign to pick a president, France hurtled toward a choice Sunday with voters opting between a far-right firebrand who wants to deconstruct modern Europe and a centrist political neophyte who has promised to revive it.
Under clouds and a cool spring rain across much of the country, voters from the chic cafe neighborhoods of Paris to the struggling postindustrial towns of the French countryside made their way to polling stations for an election in which turnout is expected to top 75 percent.
Pre-election surveys showed centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron enjoying a wide lead over populist challenger Marine Le Pen. But following a campaign studded with surprises, France was braced at least for the possibility of one more.
“I’m anxious,” said 47-year-old Sylvie Dartigues, a professional coach who cast her ballot amid the vaulted ceilings of Paris’s 17th-century Place des Vosges, a former royal residence that was also home to Victor Hugo. “I absolutely don’t want Marine Le Pen to be president. She represents everything that’s against my values: racism, intolerance and no real plan for the country.”
Ninety miles away, in the small northern city of Laon, 66-year-old Lionel Abenton said he had voted for Le Pen because she wants to crack down on immigration and shows “loyalty to the French people.”
She also stands up to globalization, which, waving his hand down main street as he enumerated the stores that have closed, Abenton blamed for the decline of the city that has been his home all his life. “It’s Europe that decides,” he said ruefully.
Across France, voting was sluggish compared with previous elections. About 28 percent of the country had cast ballots by noon, down from the past two presidential contests in 2007 and 2012.
The election in a country beleaguered by chronically high unemployment and recurrent mass terrorist attacks will end in a historic decision no matter whom the majority among tens of millions of French voters select.
The dominant two parties of France’s Fifth Republic have both been eliminated. The two candidates who remain, Le Pen and Macron, have both traced an outsider’s path as they have sought residence at the Élysée Palace.
Le Pen, 48, is the second-generation leader of a party long relegated to the French political fringe but now maneuvering to the heart of the country’s unhappy political discourse with its attacks on immigration and the European Union.
Macron, 39, is a former investment banker and economy minister who bucked his ex-boss, President François Hollande, and launched a pro-European, pro-globalization movement that aims for the radical center by borrowing freely from both left and right.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote will have profound implications not only for France’s 67 million citizens, but also for the future of Europe and for the political trajectory across the Western world.
After a pair of stunning triumphs in 2016 — Brexit in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump in the United States — France’s vote is a test of whether the political mainstream can beat back a rising tide from the populist right.
Many of Europe’s mainstream leaders — both center-right and center-left — lined up to cheer on Macron after he punched his ticket to the second round in a vote last month. The endorsements were a break from protocol for presidents and prime ministers who normally stay out of one another’s domestic elections.
But they reflected the gravity of the choice that France faces, with impacts that could ripple across the continent and around the world.
Europe’s powers-that-be are desperately hoping that France ignores Le Pen’s siren call to take her country out of both the euro and the European Union. Her victory would be considered a possible death blow to decades of efforts to draw Europe more closely together.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama has also endorsed Macron.
The current White House occupant, Trump, has been uncharacteristically cagey about his choice, saying before the first round that Le Pen was “the strongest on borders and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” He predicted that she would do well but stopped short of endorsing her.
Le Pen celebrated Trump’s victory last November, with her top aide tweeting: “Their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.” A Le Pen victory was seen by many in far-right movements across the West as the next big blow to the political establishment.
On the campaign trail this spring, Le Pen’s rhetoric has often echoed Trump’s, with vows to put “France first” and to defend “the forgotten France.” She also condemns globalist cosmopolitans — Macron chief among them — who she says do not have the nation’s interests at heart.
But she has also distanced herself from Trump since his inauguration, often declining to mention him by name.
Macron shares almost nothing with Trump except one key fact: If Macron wins, he, too, will have become president of his country on his first run for elective office.
The son of doctors who was raised in the northern city of Amiens, Macron had to teach himself the basics of campaigning on the fly in the white-hot glare of a presidential race. He also had to distance himself from Hollande, the historically unpopular Socialist incumbent who gave Macron his major break in politics by making him economy minister.
Macron has benefited from a series of unforeseen stumbles by key competitors, namely opponents from the center-right who had been expected to win this year’s vote after five years of Socialist rule.
As leader of a movement he built from scratch — En Marche!, or Onward! — Macron has run on pledges to reform both France and Europe. But even with a wide margin of victory — which the polls all forecast — he could struggle to enact his agenda without sufficient backing in the French National Assembly. Parliamentary elections are due next month.
Despite his lead in the polls, surveys also show that most of Macron’s supporters say they see themselves voting against Le Pen rather than for him.
That was reflected on the streets Sunday, with voters even in well-to-do and heavily pro-Macron neighborhoods of Paris saying they felt more resigned than excited.
“It’s a sad day. Usually the election ends for me on a sunny terrace, having brunch with friends that lasts all day,” said Monicka Launay, a retired 73-year-old industrial designer. “Not this year.”
Launay said her first-round favorite, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, had campaigned with a “lyricism” that she found lacking in the two candidates who remain.
“It’s important to dream,” she said. “Many foreigners may not understand, but in France we need poetry in our politics.”
In Laon, the small city north of Paris, many voters said they were so disillusioned by the choice that they would cast a blank ballot.
Others said their disenchantment had led them to Le Pen — and a hope that, despite the polls, she can still eke out a victory that will bring the radical break for France that they crave.
“We’ve had 50 years of rule from the left and the right,” said Francis Morel, a 54-year-old breadmaker who cast his ballot for Le Pen. “Nothing has changed.”
Stanley-Becker reported from Laon. Benjamin Zagzag in Laon and Virgile Demoustier in Paris contributed to this report.