Here is a look at the two candidates:
In just five years, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron has gone from a young newbie in politics to a key world player and weighty decision-maker in the European Union who has been deeply involved in efforts to end Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The outspoken 44-year-old centrist, with his non-stop diplomatic activism, doesn’t always get his way but has earned his place on the international scene.
At home, he managed to regain some popularity after the “yellow vest” protests against social injustice sent his approval to record lows in 2018. Opinion polls show many French praise his presidential stature and consider him up to the job to face major global crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict.
They also show he is often perceived as arrogant and out of touch with ordinary people.
Macron has notably been dubbed “president of the rich,” especially during the yellow vest crisis. Some critics also denounce a perceived authoritarian attitude, holding him responsible for violent incidents involving police during street protests.
The job of president is his first elected office, though he came with a strong pedigree.
Macron studied at France’s elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, and was a senior civil servant, then a banker at Rothschild for a few years, then economic adviser to Socialist President Francois Hollande.
He emerged from that backstage role onto the political scene when he was appointed economy minister in Hollande’s government from 2014 to 2016.
A series of political surprises — including a corruption scandal involving a key rival — thrust him toward presidential victory in 2017. He beat Le Pen in that race on promises to free up France’s economy to boost job creation and attract foreign investment.
Macron, who describes himself as “a president who believes in Europe,” argues the EU is the way for France to be stronger in a global world.
A strong advocate of entrepreneurial spirit, he has eased rules to hire and fire workers and to made it harder to get unemployment benefits. Critics accuse him of destroying worker protections.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he acknowledged the crucial role of the state in supporting the economy, spending massively and vowing to support employees and business via public aid “whatever it costs.”
In his biggest campaign rally near Paris earlier this month, Macron paid an emotional tribute to his wife Brigitte, the person “I care the most about.” They could be seen on the stadium’s giant screens sending kisses to each other.
As first lady, Brigitte Macron, 24 years his senior, has been involved in charities and other programs promoting culture, education and health.
Their romance started when he was a student at the high school where she was teaching in northern France. At the time a married mother of three, she was supervising the drama club. Macron, a literature lover, was a member.
Macron moved to Paris for his last year of high school. She eventually moved to the French capital to join him and divorced. They married in 2007.
MARINE LE PEN
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, in her third bid for the French presidency, is nothing if not determined, like her firebrand father who co-founded the anti-immigration party that she now leads.
She is as feisty and gritty as father Jean-Marie, who ran five times for the nation’s highest office. Since she inherited his National Front party in 2011, she has worked to crack the wall of fear of the far right that so far has barred their path to the presidency.
Polls show her trailing, but closer than ever to victory. If elected, she would seek to transform French politics and society into her “French-first” vision.
She changed the name of the National Front and booted her father out in 2015, part of her effort to rid the renamed National Rally of the taint of racism and antisemitism that clung to the far right for decades.
Family dramas have long been at the center of the Le Pen dynasty. She has armored herself over the years, and keeps her private life to herself.
When her popular niece, Marion Marechal, a former party lawmaker, quit the National Rally, Marine Le Pen succeeded in keeping it from becoming another public family feud. Marechal — whom Le Pen helped raise — drove the betrayal deeper by supporting far-right rival Eric Zemmour in the first round of the presidential election.
A wily politician, Le Pen has transformed her own image from that of an aggressive, anti-system proponent to a mild-mannered spokeswoman for France’s forgotten.
Le Pen, 53, who has two daughters and one son and is divorced, shares her home with a childhood girlfriend and her beloved cats.
Born Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen in 1968 in a cushy western Paris suburb, she has written that she was “raised on honey and the acid of politics.”
Her parents’ marriage ended in a publicly bitter divorce — after which her mother Pierrete Lalanne posed in 1987 for the French edition of Playboy scantily dressed in a maid’s outfit. She said she did so after Jean-Marie Le Pen said that if she needed money she should do house cleaning.
Le Pen has successfully kept her own children in the shadows of her political life, sparing them the exposure that she and her sisters endured.
Le Pen is a lawyer by training and among her clients before she switched to politics were immigrants living illegally in France — whom as a politician she wants to expel. It is one of the numerous contradictions that define Le Pen. Another is her relationship with some members of a now-banned extreme right-wing movement whom she met in law school — a relationship she neither denies nor defines.