French election 2022: Macron expected to beat far-right rival, estimates show

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(PARIS) -- French President Emmanuel Macron is projected to win a second term in office after facing his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in a runoff election on Sunday.

Early estimates reported by French media and confirmed to ABC News by French polling institute Ipsos show that the centrist incumbent won a comfortable 58% of the votes, which was higher than opinion polls had predicted. Votes will continue to be counted overnight, with final results being released Monday afternoon by the French government. Macron would be the first sitting French president to be reelected in 20 years.

As polling stations closed across the country and French media announced the preliminary results on Sunday evening, supporters at Macron’s rally in front of the shimmering Eiffel Tower in Paris cheered: "We won, she lost!"

One Macron supporter told ABC News that he was "relieved."

"Because I was afraid Marine Le Pen would win," he said.

Le Pen, however, was the first to take the stage that night at her rally on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, following the news of her projected loss. While admitting defeat, she told her supporters that "tonight’s result represents in itself a dazzling victory." She won an estimated 42% of the votes -- the highest amount by a far-right party candidate in France’s modern history.

"We can see that we have nevertheless been victorious," Le Pen said, before promising to "pursue her engagement for France and for the French" and to "lead the battle of the legislative elections."

Macron, 44, and Le Pen, 53, emerged as the top candidates in the 2022 French presidential election after a first-round vote on April 10. Sunday's runoff was a rematch of the 2017 presidential election, in which Macron beat Le Pen by a landslide.

Earlier this week, opinion polls reported by French media showed a close race ahead of the second-round vote, with Macron leading Le Pen by about 13 percentage points.

"The gap between the two candidates as measured in the polls is much more narrow than five years ago," Henri Wallard, the chairman of Ipsos in France and its global deputy CEO, told ABC News on Saturday.

This time, Le Pen sought to soften her rhetoric and image as the leader of the far-right French political party National Rally. The former lawyer was no longer directly calling for France to leave the European Union and abandon the euro currency. However, she was likened to former U.S. President Donald Trump with her hard-line policies on Islam and immigration. If elected, she vowed to ban Muslim headscarves in public and give French citizens priority over foreigners for housing and job benefits.

"Her image has considerably softened," Wallard said. "She comes across as less extremist than before."

Le Pen was also criticized for her history of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. She called Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine "unacceptable" and said she's in favor of sanctions, but publicly opposed restrictions on Russian energy imports, citing concerns about the rising cost of living in France. She also pledged to withdraw France from NATO's integrated military command, which could undermine support for Ukraine's fight. Le Pen previously spoke out in favor of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

"Her victory would be a political earthquake," Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., told ABC News on Friday. "She would probably not wreck that coalition, but raise difficult questions."

Meanwhile, Macron was all but absent from the campaign trail as he moderated talks between Putin and Western countries, which ultimately failed to prevent the war in Ukraine. Many French citizens were feeling disenfranchised by Macron's stringent COVID-19 policies and unpopular plans to raise the legal retirement age amid widespread inflation and soaring gas prices.

One Paris resident told ABC News on Saturday that deciding which candidate to vote for was like choosing between "cholera and the plague." Another voter at a polling station on the outskirts of Paris told ABC News that he considered Macron "the lesser evil."

Fears that voter turnout could be low materialized in polling stations across France. The final rate of abstention is set to reach 28% for Sunday, up 2.5% from 2017, according to convergent estimates from four French polling institutes, including Ipsos and Sopra Steria.

In a brief victory speech on Sunday night, Macron addressed those who didn't vote.

"Their silence signified a refusal to choose, which we must also respond to," Macron told the crowd.

The former banker-turned-president then reached out to Le Pen's supporters.

"My thoughts go to those who voted for Mrs. Le Pen," he said, "because from now on, I am no longer a candidate for a party, but I am everyone's president."

ABC News' Jay Alpert, Guy Davies, Nicky de Blois and Grant Lawson contributed to this report.

Monday, April 25, 2022 at 6:11AM by Mary Bruce, Ibtissem Guenfoud and Morgan Winsor, ABC News Permalink