On the streets of Paris, figures cloaked in hoods stalk through the acrid smoke lingering upon the boulevard. It's a scene almost theatrical in nature: one that would perhaps not go amiss in the pages of Les Miserables. It seems an unlikely backdrop for Paris' annual May Day labour march: an ominous setting for one of the latest battlegrounds between presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.
For Alexandra McLeod, an English student in Bordeaux, this protest is only the latest in a nationwide series: "When [Le Pen] visited Le Lac in the north of Bordeaux, she had crowds of hundreds to greet and support her. Meanwhile, there was a protest in the centre of town at the same time, marching against her policies. There were around 1500 people I think, and hundreds of police. They had signs, smoke guns, masks on their faces... It was quite intimidating."
For many commentators, this election is poised to spark revolutionary upheaval for French politics. The rise of Macron's centrist En-Marche! and Le Pen's far-right National Front (FN) has sidelined France's largest political parties, proposing a radical repainting of the political landscape.
For many commentators, the current climate is a tempestuous one; more so for many international students, who are concerned by the present environment.
"As a person of colour, there's always worry at the back of my mind, no matter where I am," says Nigerian-born Anjeola Salami, currently studying in Paris. "If the FN wins I definitely will feel less comfortable and more cautious, which is a shame because it shouldn't have to be on me to protect myself from racists. If Macron does win however, there's still a big chunk of the population that share the FN's racist views, or are completely fine with excusing them."
Certainly, the nationalistic ideology propounded by the FN is one that is gaining further credence across France. Its uncompromising pledges to minimise immigration, enhance law and order resources, and clamp down on Islamist extremism have notoriously gained authority among the French electorate. A recent study named the FN as the most popular party for voters aged 18 to 34, while support for Le Pen after the first round of voting stood at a record 21.5%.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Drawing parallels between the rise of Le Pen and Donald Trump, US-born Elizabeth Ehmke, a mature student in Lyon, attributes a swathe of their popularity to the intense levels of media coverage surrounding their "closed-minded views".
Meanwhile for Megan Davies, a University of Exeter student currently interning in Paris, the problem is far more inherent: "Following the terror attacks and the situation with migrants in an uncertain Europe, people are concerned. People are also disgruntled by Hollande and so this strong and determined person that Le Pen has is certainly swaying those that see no hope in socialism or Macron's En Marche! To assume France is some kind of hotbed of right-wing fanatics would be too simplistic, but to underestimate the appeal of Le Pen is equally as dangerous."
Indeed, as an election in which France's stance on both the European Union and immigration are being sorely tested, has it affected international students' desire to remain in France?
For McLeod, the answer is a resounding "no", asserting her sense of security even during this more controversial period.
Davies, also, has few cosmetic qualms about remaining in Paris: "France is still a very happy country and one where I feel accepted. I've been really struck by the French spirit since being here because despite all the terror attacks in Paris, life really does go on here. Having said that, if Le Pen wins, I think life will change. I've already seen the protests in the street increase since the first vote, so I dread to think what will unfold if she becomes President. Macon is by no means perfect, and I understand why people are unhappy, but I think a victory for En Marche! would offer some real hope for Europe."