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The Implications As French Voters Head To The Polls


The polls are open in France today and the most important presidential election there in more than half a century. The stakes are huge. Two of the four leading candidates in this first round of voting are tough critics of the European Union. One of them, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, wants to pull France out of the EU. Most analysts say that would be a death blow to an institution that has helped keep peace and bind Europe together for decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in a small farming village outside of Paris this morning. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Lynn.

NEARY: So, Frank, tell us first about the town where you are and what it's like there.

LANGFITT: Well, I'm in this little village. It's called Saclas. It's about 1,800 people, about an hour's train ride south of Paris. And right around the corner from where I am is the City Hall. That's the polling station. It's a valley with a lot of old stone homes, and right behind me is this 16th-century mill that's been converted into a house. It's a beautiful sunny day, and honestly, I feel like I'm worlds away from central Paris.

NEARY: Sounds lovely. And I know you've been talking to a lot of voters, so tell us what kinds of things are you hearing from the - about whom they support?

LANGFITT: Well, actually it's not that easy, Lynn. People are very private here, and so a lot of people wouldn't tell me. But I went to this city nearby. It's called Etampes. And I had this really interesting exchange that kind of captures the debate, not just here in France, but in the broader Western world.

For some people, I think when you talk to them, you get a sense that this is a referendum on globalization for them. I was talking to this trucker. His name is Sebastean Pierre. He's 38. And he said he voted for Marine Le Pen and explained his vote. Here's what he said.

SEBASTEAN PIERRE: (Speaking French).

LANGFITT: "A bit for the same reasons as some Americans voted for Trump," he told me, "to get back a bit of our national sovereignty and rediscover the pride from the time of Charles de Gaulle." So what he's basically saying here is make France great again.

NEARY: Well, when he's talking about sovereignty, what is he referring to there?

LANGFITT: He's talking about the European Union, Lynn. His complaint here is because of open borders and free trade, he's had to compete for a number of years now with Romanian truckers, and they have much lower salaries. His is about 25 percent of what he earns four years ago because of this competition. His salary was cut about 600 bucks, and that's about a 20 percent cut for him. He blames foreign competition. And one of the big reasons he supports Le Pen is because she wants to take France out of the EU and change this whole situation.

NEARY: And what about some other voters? Who are they banking on?

LANGFITT: Well, it was really interesting. I was at the same place in Etampes. I talked to the mirror opposite of Sebastean. This is an investment banker named Ben Agogue, and he takes a long commute in every day to Paris during the week. And he supports Emmanuel Macron. This the most pro-European Union candidate. And a big reason is because Ben has benefited from France being in the EU. He was able to work in Dublin in banking, and here's how he explained it to me.

BEN AGOGUE: Thanks for Europe, I could spend five years in Ireland without any visa. I went over there with only my French ID, and I could find a job in two weeks.

LANGFITT: And was that a good experience, a good opportunity - Dublin?

AGOGUE: A good opportunity for me. I think that France overall benefited from globalization.

LANGFITT: And that's one of the fundamental disagreements here, and certainly we saw in the U.K. during the Brexit vote and also in America during Trump's - Mr. Trump's victory, a fundamental disagreement over globalization and who benefits.

NEARY: What are they expecting about turnout there?

LANGFITT: Turnout has actually been surprising. A lot of people feel - a lot of voters say they're disillusioned, might not vote today here in Saint-Claude. At noon, 50 percent had already voted.

NEARY: Frank, do you have any idea who the top vote-getters might be?

LANGFITT: Not at all, which is what makes this such a cliffhanger. There are four kind of frontrunners. And polling is inaccurate here. And people have no idea, late tonight, who's going to be moving into the second round.

NEARY: NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Lynn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.