PARIS - French voters headed to the polls Sunday for the presidential run-off between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his challenger Marine Le Pen, after a fractious campaign that has seen the far right come its closest yet to winning power. Macron went into the election with a stable lead in opinion polls, an advantage he consolidated in the frenetic final days of campaigning, including a no-holds-barred performance in the pre-election debate.

But analysts have cautioned that Macron, who rose to power in 2017 aged 39 as the country’s youngest-ever modern leader, can take nothing for granted given forecasts of low turnout that could sway the result in either direction.

At midday, voter participation stood at 26.4 percent, nearly two percentage points lower than at the same time five years ago, when Macron handily beat Le Pen in their first face-off. But turnout was above the 25.5 percent seen at midday in the first round of voting on April 10, said the interior ministry, which will issue its next update on voter participation at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT). Lucien Chameroy, 80, said he “didn’t hesitate at all” after casting his ballot in Dijon, eastern France. “There’s a lot at stake, and I think people don’t realise that if you don’t vote, it’s the street that decides, and it’s a minority that takes power,” he told AFP. Le Pen beamed as she greeted supporters before casting her ballot in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont, a stronghold of her National Rally party, while Macron worked a crowd of several hundreds before voting with his wife Brigitte in the Channel resort town of Le Touquet.

Voting stations will close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT), when preliminary results will be released that usually predict the final result with a high degree of accuracy. Macron in particular is hoping that left-wing voters who backed other candidates in the first round on April 10 will support the former investment banker and his pro-business, reformist agenda to stop Le Pen and her populist programme. But far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who scored a close third-place finish in the first round, has pointedly refused to urge his millions of followers to back Macron while insisting they should not vote for Le Pen.