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Macron and Le Pen face off again as France's presidential election continues

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The French presidential race is intensifying as the two leading candidates from the first round Sunday prepare for the second-round runoff. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron will face far-right leader Marine Le Pen for the second time. The two ran off in the last presidential election five years ago, and Macron handily beat Le Pen with 66% of the vote. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, much has changed since then.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Macron barely campaigned ahead of the first round, but he hit the ground running Monday morning, showing up in France's poorest town, Denain, in the north of the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Please think of us in the down-and-out France," a resident pleaded. "We're living in misery."

The town went 41% for Marine Le Pen. Macron got 17%.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: In Paris, Le Pen's supporters were ecstatic on Sunday night. Their candidate got 23.5% of the vote to Macron's 27.5%, only a four-point difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Analysts say Marine Le Pen has a real chance this time. French voters in general have moved to the right, and she has softened her image, appearing more mainstream. That's partly because another, even further-right candidate whipped up anti-immigrant sentiment this time, while Le Pen stuck to bread-and-butter economic issues like purchasing power. That paid off, says 26-year-old supporter David, who prefers not to give his last name.

DAVID: (Through interpreter) She has been campaigning on ground, going to markets, meeting people across France. This is why she got so many votes in the first round, and this is why she will win in two weeks.

BEARDSLEY: Macron is no longer perceived as the wunderkind of politics, miraculously uniting the left and right. He's become an arrogant elitist to many.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: At his rally across town from Le Pen's, Macron said he knew many of those who would vote for him in the second round were only doing so to block the far right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: This Macron supporter told French television he knows there's deep anti-Macron sentiment across the country, but voters have to prioritize blocking the far-right. Gone are the large mainstream right and left blocs. The parties of Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand barely reached 5% this time.

More than 50% of votes went to extremists. Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon came in third place, just one percentage point behind Le Pen. Both Le Pen and Macron are now vying for his voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Melenchon told his supporters not a single vote could go to Madame Le Pen. But he did not endorse Macron. Melenchon's supporters could vote for Le Pen, because the French far-left and far-right have similar socioeconomic platforms - support for the working class and hatred of a globalized, capitalist system they say benefits elites and corporations. Martin Quencez, deputy director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, says this election is a choice between two different visions of France.

MARTIN QUENCEZ: Although there has been an enormous effort by Marine Le Pen to sort of normalize her image and to cut some of the most controversial slogans from her program, if you look at the details, it hasn't changed that much. The vision that Marine Le Pen promotes is extremely different from the one that Emmanuel Macron supports.

BEARDSLEY: Under Le Pen, he says, France wouldn't lead the EU; it would opt out of its policies. And it would likely quit NATO's Central Command. And France's closest allies might not include the U.S., but rather countries like Serbia, Hungary and even Russia.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.