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Macron or Le Pen: France faces stark choice for president

The French began voting on Sunday in an election that will decide whether pro-European Union, centrist President Emmanuel Macron keeps his job or is unseated by far-right eurosceptic Marine Le Pen in what would amount to a political earthquake.

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Opinion polls in recent days gave Macron a solid and slightly growing lead as analysts said Le Pen – despite her efforts to soften her image and tone down some of her National Rally party’s policies – remained unpalatable for many.

But a surprise Le Pen victory cannot be ruled out, given the high numbers of voters who were undecided or not sure if they would vote at all in the runoff presidential vote.

With polls showing neither candidate able to count on enough committed supporters, much will depend on a cohort of voters who are weighing up anxiety about the implications of a far-right presidency against anger at Macron’s record since his 2017 election.

If Le Pen does win, it would likely carry the same sense of stunning political upheaval as the British vote to leave the European Union or the US election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT). Initial projections by pollsters are expected as soon as polls close.

“Each of them has a huge weakness,” Bernard Sananes of pollster Elabe said. “Emmanuel Macron is considered arrogant by more than one in two voters and Marine Le Pen remains scary for half of them.”

Macron, 44 and the winner in the same matchup five years ago, has warned of “civil war” if Le Pen – whose policies include a ban on wearing Muslim headscarves in public – is elected, calling on democrats of all stripes to back him against the far-right.

Le Pen, 53, has focused her campaign on the rising cost of living in the world’s seventh-largest economy, which many French say has worsened with the surge in global energy prices. She has also zeroed in on Macron’s abrasive leadership style, which she says shows an elitist contempt for ordinary people.

“The question on Sunday is simple: Macron or France,” she told a rally in the northern French town of Arras on Thursday.

Le Pen’s message has resonated with many voters.

“She is close to the people. She can really give purchasing power to the people, make the people smile, give the people oxygen,” prison guard Erika Herbin, 43, said after the rally.

Dislike for Macron

Others, such Ghislaine Madalie, a hairdresser in Auxerre, in central France, strongly disagree.

Madalie said she would vote for Macron after backing the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round on April 10, for fear of what a Le Pen presidency would be like. But she added that many of her clients would vote for the far-right candidate because they dislike Macron.

“I find that disastrous because she is racist,” Madalie, 36, whose family has roots in Morocco said of Le Pen. “I am anxious, for me and for my children.”

Le Pen, who has also been criticized by Macron for her past admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, rejects accusations of racism. She said her plans to give priority to French citizens for social housing and jobs and scrap a number of welfare benefits for foreigners, would benefit all French, independently of their religion or origins.

Jean-Daniel Levy, of Harris Interactive pollsters, said opinion surveys showed Le Pen was unlikely to win, because that would require huge shifts in voter intentions.

If Macron does win he will face a difficult second term, with none of the grace period that he enjoyed after his first victory, and protests likely over his plan to continue pro-business reforms, including raising the retirement age from 62 to 65.

If she unseats him, Le Pen would seek to make radical changes to the country’s domestic and international policies, and street protests could start immediately. Shockwaves would be felt across Europe and beyond.

Whoever wins, a first major challenge will be to win parliamentary elections in June to secure a workable majority to implement their programs.

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Ukraine army denies claims Lysychansk is ‘encircled’

The Ukrainian army on Saturday rejected claims that Moscow-backed separatists and Russian forces had surrounded the key eastern city of Lysychansk, but said heavy fighting was ongoing on its edges.
“Fighting rages around Lysychansk. (But) luckily the city has not been encircled and is under control of the Ukrainian army,” Ruslan Muzytchuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Guard, said on Ukrainian television, after a separatist spokesman made the allegations earlier in the day.
Capturing the city would allow the Russians to push deeper into the wider eastern region of the Donbas, which has become the focus of their offensive since failing to capture Kyiv after launching their military operation in Ukraine in late February.
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Across the Donets river from Lysychansk, the Russians seized the neighboring city Sievierodonetsk last week.
Andrei Marotchko, a spokesman for the separatist forces, earlier told the TASS news agency: “Today the Luhansk popular militia and Russian forces occupied the last strategic heights, which allows us to confirm that Lysychansk is completely encircled.”
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China adds $45 billion in stimulus to pay for infrastructure projects

China announced another stimulus measure to finance infrastructure projects, part of its push to drive investment and increase employment in the second half of this year as the economy starts to recover from the effects of Covid lockdowns.

The government will raise 300 billion yuan ($44.8 billion) to finance infrastructure projects by selling financial bonds and other methods, the State Council chaired by Premier Li Keqiang decided Wednesday, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

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Those bonds are usually sold by policy banks. The money will be used to replenish the capital of major projects such as new types of infrastructure, the statement on Thursday said.

These types of financial tools can help expand effective investment, drive employment and facilitate consumption and allow China to stick to its stance of “not flooding the economy with stimulus or over-printing money,” the meeting concluded, adding that this will help banks achieve a better match between their loans and deposits and improve the transmission of monetary policy.

The People’s Bank of China will take the lead to support China Development Bank and Agricultural Development Bank of China to raise the funds via financial bonds, according to a late Friday report by Financial News, a newspaper published by the central bank.

The top economic planner will come up with a list of projects for the investment, in collaboration with other agencies and state-owned enterprises, it said.

Infrastructure projects are a key factor in determining how fast the economy can grow in the remaining six months of this year as other sources of growth such as housing and private consumption are still slowing.

President Xi Jinping pledged last month to strive to meet economic targets for the year, although Beijing’s Covid Zero strategy has caused analysts to cut their forecasts for annual growth to levels far below the official goal of around 5.5 percent.

The announcement lifted the share price of heavy equipment makers in the onshore market. SANY Heavy Industry Co. climbed 4.1 percent on Friday, Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. gained 4.9 percent and Jiangsu Hengli Hydraulic Co. rose 1.9 percent, while the benchmark CSI 300 Index dipped 0.4 percent.

New Stimulus

The new stimulus can in theory leverage as much as 1.2 trillion yuan in credit from the banking sector and capital markets, based on the government requirement that the money should be at least 20 percent of overall investment, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. economists including Lu Ting.

But its impact in reality could be much smaller, and won’t be enough to plug an estimated 6 trillion yuan funding gap that the government has to fill if it wants to carry out its proactive fiscal policy, they wrote in a note Friday.

Local authorities are under huge financial stress this year due to the cost of Covid controls and tax cuts, as well as a slump in land sales that reduced a key source of revenue.

The new money is in addition to the 800 billion yuan the three policy banks were told in June to lend for infrastructure projects. That loan quota has already been allocated to the policy banks, local newspaper the 21st Century Business Herald reported Friday, citing sources it didn’t identify.

China Development Bank was allowed to boost lending by 400 billion yuan, Agricultural Development Bank of China’s quota for new credit was 300 billion yuan and another 100 billion yuan was assigned to the Export-Import Bank of China, the newspaper reported.

The development banks’ main source of funds is issuing bonds or loans from China’s central bank, although it hasn’t been announced where the money to finance these new loans will come from.

The size of the additional bonds is only a fraction of what the policy banks normally issue in a year. The banks sold a gross amount of 5.5 trillion yuan bonds in the interbank market last year, with a monthly average of 460 billion yuan, according to Bloomberg calculation based on Chinabond and Shanghai Clearing House data. Between January and May this year, they issued 2.3 trillion yuan in bonds.

The State Council, which is China’s cabinet, also vowed to implement a batch of investment projects that are aimed at increasing workers’ income and boosting their consumption.

These projects will have to spend more than 30 percent of central government funding on paying workers, up from 15 percent previously.

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UN condemns protesters’ storming of Libya’s parliament

A senior UN official for Libya on Saturday condemned the storming of the parliament’s headquarters by angry demonstrators as part of protests in several cities against the political class and deteriorating economic conditions.
Hundreds of protesters marched in the streets of the capital Tripoli and other Libyan cities on Friday, with many attacking and setting fire to government buildings, including the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk.
“The people’s right to peacefully protest should be respected and protected but riots and acts of vandalism such as the storming of the House of Representatives headquarters late yesterday in Tobruk are totally unacceptable,” said Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, on Twitter.
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Friday’s protests came a day after the leaders of the parliament and another legislative chamber based in Tripoli failed to reach an agreement on elections during UN-mediated talks in Geneva. The dispute now centers on the eligibility requirements for candidates, according to the UN.
Libya failed to hold elections in December following challenges including legal disputes, controversial presidential hopefuls and the presence of rogue militias and foreign fighters in the country.
The failure to hold the vote was a major below to international efforts to bring peace to the Mediterranean nation. It has opened a new chapter in its long-running political impasse, with two rival governments now claiming power after tentative steps toward unity in the past year.
The protesters, frustrated from years of chaos and division, have called for the removal of the current political class and elections to be held. They also rallied against dire economic conditions in the oil-rich nation, where prices have risen for fuel and bread and power outages are a regular occurrence.
There were fears that militias across the country could quash the protests as they did in 2020 demonstrations when they opened fire on people protesting dire economic conditions.
Sabadell Jose, the European Union envoy in Libya, called on protesters to “avoid any type of violence.” He said Friday’s demonstrations demonstrated that people want “change through elections and their voices should be heard.”
Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country was then for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.
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