Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will face each other in a runoff presidential election on Sunday, April 24 -- a rematch of the 2017 vote.
Paris CNN  — 

It’s Macron vs. Le Pen, round two.

France’s presidential election will be a rematch of the 2017 contest, when the far right’s Marine Le Pen faced off against political newcomer Emmanuel Macron.

Macron won that race by nearly two votes to one.

But while the candidates remain the same, the 2022 race is shaping up to be a very different affair.

Here’s everything you need to know.

How does the election work?

To elect their new President, French voters head to the polls twice.

The first vote, on Sunday, saw 12 candidates run against each other. They qualified for the race by securing endorsements from 500 mayors and/or local councilors from across the country.

Macron and Le Pen received the most votes, but since neither won more than 50%, they will head to a runoff on Sunday, April 24.

This isn’t the only national vote France faces this year – parliamentary elections are also due to take place in June.

What dates do I need to know?

Macron and Le Pen will hold one debate on the evening of April 20 that will be aired by French broadcasters France 2 and TF1.

Le Pen appeared much more prepared than in the event in 2017, when her poor performance effectively doomed her campaign. Le Pen attacked Macron on economic measures, arguing he hasn’t done enough to help French families cope with inflation and rising energy prices, while Macron went after Le Pen’s ties to Russia and previous support for President Vladimir Putin.

A poll from CNN affiliate BFM TV found that 59% of voters found Macron to be the more presidential of the two.

The runoff election will then take place on Sunday April 24.

Candidates are not allowed to campaign the day before the vote, or on election day itself, and the media will be subject to strict reporting restrictions from the day before the election until polls close at 8 p.m. Sunday in France.

What do the polls show?

A much closer contest than the 2017 election.

Macron and Le Pen both increased their total share of the vote in this year’s first round compared with 2017, but surveys ahead of the first round on April 10 showed Le Pen enjoyed a late surge of support in March.

Polling by Ifop-Fiducial released on April 10 suggests Macron would win a second-round contest against Le Pen by just 51% to 49%. Macron’s advantage has increased in the days since the first round results came in, but two weeks is a long time in politics – and a lot could change between now and election day.

Political analysts often say the French vote with their heart in round one, then vote with their head in round two – meaning they choose their ideal candidate first, then opt for the lesser of two evils in the second round.

Macron saw this play out in 2017. He and Le Pen scored 24% and 21.3% of the first round vote and then 66.1% and 33.9% in the second round, respectively.

To be reelected, Macron will likely need to convince far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon’s supporters to back him. Melenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote. On Sunday, Melenchon told his supporters “we must not give a single vote to Mrs. Le Pen,” but did not explicitly back Macron.

Most losing candidates urged their supporters to back Macron to block the far right from winning the presidency.

Eric Zemmour, a right-wing former TV pundit known for his inflammatory rhetoric, urged his supporters to back Le Pen.

What are French people expecting?

The unexpected.

At the start of 2022, the election looked set to be an important referendum on the rising popularity of the French far right. It has been 20 years since a French President was reelected, so the vote was shaping up to be one of the country’s most watched political races in decades.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

With Europe’s eyes fixed firmly on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bloody war, priorities have quickly shifted: Ammunition stockpiles, high-stakes diplomacy and even the threat of a nuclear strike have all entered the national debate.

Macron assumed the role of Europe’s statesman, taking him away from the campaign trail, while Le Pen was forced to backtrack on her previous support for Putin.

What else has changed in the past five years?

Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Macron’s election effectively blew up the traditional center of French politics. In years past, many of his voters would have flocked to the traditional center-left and center-right parties, the Socialists and the Republicans.

But Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist candidate, and Valérie Pécresse, the Republican candidate, failed to persuade voters to abandon the centrist candidate already in office. Both polled under 5% in the first round.

What else do I need to know about Macron and Le Pen?

First-term President Emmanuel Macron has only ever stood in one election – his successful 2017 presidential run – and has had a mixed record coming into 2022. Considering that no sitting French president has won re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002, his is a tough spot to be in, though he is the favorite.

“The popularity rating today is important,” political commentator Jean-Michel Aphatie told CNN. “The level of hatred towards Emmanuel Macron is considerable and shared.”

His ambitious plan to bolster the European Union’s autonomy and geopolitical heft won him respect abroad and at home, even though his attempts to win over Donald Trump or to prevent the AUKUS submarine deal, and his unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to avert war in Ukraine could be considered failures.

Macron’s domestic policies are more divisive and less popular. His handling of the yellow vest movement, one of France’s most prolonged protests in decades, was widely panned, and his record on the Covid-19 pandemic is inconclusive.

Macron’s signature policy during the crisis – requiring people to show proof of vaccination to go about their lives as normal – helped increase vaccination rates but fired up a vocal minority against his presidency.

The most unexpected challenge of his presidency – Covid-19 – has perhaps defined his time in office. More than two years of lockdowns and mask mandates, a fumbled EU vaccine rollout and the bold move to effectively force French people to get vaccinated have fired up vocal opposition, even as most of the country learned to live with the realities of the virus and a quiet majority supported the measures.

The younger Le Pen has attempted to rebrand the party, as it has long been viewed as racist and anti-Semitic.

This is her third shot at the presidency. This year and in 2017, she outperformed her father in the first round of the vote.

The challenger

Since then, she has abandoned some of her most controversial policy proposals, like leaving the European Union.

But by and large, her economic nationalist stance, views on immigration, skepticism of Europe and position on Islam in France – she wants to make it illegal for women to wear headscarves in public – have not changed. “Stopping uncontrolled immigration” and “eradicating Islamist ideologies” are her manifesto’s two priorities.

Le Pen has, however, attempted to soften her tone, especially around Islam and the EU in the wake of Brexit.

Instead, she has campaigned hard on pocketbook issues, promising measures that she claims will put 150 euros to 200 euros ($162 to $216) in the coffers of each household, including a pledge to remove sales tax from 100 household goods.

The strategy appears to have worked.

Le Pen’s performance in the first round of the 2022 presidential election was her best result in the three times she has run.

What are the biggest issues for French voters?

The cost of living is among the top issues for the French electorate this year. Faced with the economic fallout of the pandemic, high energy prices and the war in Ukraine, voters are feeling the pinch, despite generous government support.

While financial pressures may not be enough to whitewash some candidates’ extremism in voters’ minds, they may push some to look for unorthodox answers to their problems.

The fighting in Ukraine is a long way from the bistros and cafes of France, but the conflict is certainly on voters’ minds. Just shy of 90% of French people were worried about the war in the last week of March, according to Ifop. Given his challengers’ patchy record on standing up to Putin, this has likely played in Macron’s favor so far.

Notably absent from the debate has been the environmental crisis. Although the importance of climate protections is gaining traction globally, France sourced 75% of its electricity needs in 2020 from nuclear energy, according to the French environment ministry. With most candidates backing the kind of nuclear development that Macron has already announced, there is little divergence on this issue.

However, Macron and Le Pen have sparred over wind and solar power. Le Pen argues that the two are expensive and inefficient – she also says wind turbines have scarred the landscape of the traditional French countryside – so she wants to scrap subsidies for both. Macron wants to further invest in both technologies.

The Macron and Le Pen campaigns are promising two very different visions for the future of France.

Macron promises to continue forging ahead with a globalized, free market-focused France at the head of a powerful EU. Le Pen wants to completely upend the status quo with protectionist economic policies and a revamping of Paris’ relationship with its allies and adversaries.

But in the end, the election may simply come down to which candidate France dislikes least: The President who is widely seen as elitist and out of touch, or the challenger best known for her inflammatory rhetoric on Islam and support for authoritarians.

Journalist Elias Lemercier contributed to this report