Twelve candidates, including the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, are running for the top position. If none of them get more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will face each other in a runoff election on April 24.
Macron wants to become the first French president to win reelection since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
The centrist Macron faces a litany of challengers from the political extremes, including Marine Le Pen, longtime flag-bearer of far-right French; TV expert and author Eric Zemmour; and left-wing firefighter Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Most analysts said the contest would be a referendum on the rise of the French right, but the war in Ukraine overturned those expectations.
The president proposed a higher tax on diesel early in his term, sparking the yellow vest movement, one of France’s longest protests in decades. His track record on the Covid-19 pandemic, the other defining crisis of his presidency, is not clear. Macron’s signature policy during the Covid era — requiring people to show proof of vaccination to lead their lives normally — helped boost vaccination rates but sparked a vocal minority who opposed his presidency.
Macron has campaigned little so far, refusing to debate his opponents. Experts believe his strategy was to avoid political mud-slinging for as long as possible in order to promote his image as the most presidential of all candidates.
Le Pen, for her part, has been campaigning more mainstream this year compared to her latest bid to win the presidency. While controlling immigration remains her campaign priority, she softened her anti-Islam tone and dropped calls for France to leave the European Union — especially in the wake of Brexit — in order to win over voters from outside her base. .
Political analysts say Le Pen’s focus on the rising cost of living could pay off, as rising prices of everyday goods and energy are one of the electorate’s main concerns.
Many pundits also expected the war to hurt Le Pen and Zemmour’s campaigns, as both had previously spoken fondly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen deleted a campaign flyer with a photo of her visit to the Russian leader, while Zemmour returned after promising Putin would never invade Ukraine.
Nathalie Loiseau, a member of the European Parliament and Macron’s prime minister of European affairs, told CNN she believes the French president is motivated by “a sense of duty”.
“He’s not doing it for electoral reasons. He does it because he thinks he has to,” she said.
But Macron’s decision to forgo campaigning rather than seek a diplomatic solution to Ukraine’s crisis, whether motivated by politics or principle, could prove a risk.
“This isn’t worth it. He won’t get a big win. He knows. But he has to do it,” said Loiseau.