As the final week of the most unpredictable campaigh for years approaches, we look at what the leading candidates stand for and which one is most likely to win
April 13, 2017
By Jon Henley European affairs correspondent
What’s the story and why is it important?
France elects a new president in two rounds of voting on 23 April and 7 May. Polls have forecast for more than two years that the populist, nationalist, authoritarian Marine Le Pen will advance to the run-off.
The polls also suggest Le Pen, who has promised to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on France’s EU membership, would then lose to Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist economy minister running as an independent centrist.
But the race is very tight. Both François Fillon, a former rightwing prime minister hit by an alleged corruption scandal, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left veteran with a radical economic programme, could also make the final two.
In fact, with an estimated one-third of voters yet to make up their minds, polling inconsistencies and margins of error make it impossible to predict with certainty which two of the top four will face off in the final round.
After Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US, a President Le Pen would deal a heavy symbolic blow to Europe, send markets into turmoil, and be seen as the next step in a populist, nativist insurgency.
A victory for the Eurosceptic Mélenchon would also seriously shake the establishment, while a Macron win could – after the defeat of Geert Wilders in March’s Dutch elections – point to a future for centrist, pro-European politics.
What’s the political landscape and how does the system work?
Eleven candidates, each backed by at least 500 mayors, MPs, MEPs or senators, have qualified for the first round. Assuming none wins a majority, the two highest scorers face off two weeks later. The winner needs more than 50% of the vote.
The two-round system, also used in parliamentary, local and regional polls, was introduced in 1962 by Charles de Gaulle and has proved effective at keeping extremists out of power: you vote first with your heart, the French say, then with your head.
Whoever wins, this is already an exceptional election: there is a very real possibility that neither of the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties that have governed France since the 1950s will be represented in the run-off.
Le Pen’s far-right Front National has been advancing steadily; it controls 14 town halls and has two MPs. In 2015’s regional polls it won 28% of the vote, its highest ever score. But France’s two-round system has so far kept it from power.
This year, with the leftwing Socialist party (PS) in disarray after the disastrous five-year term of the outgoing president, François Hollande, former prime minister Alain Juppé from the rightwing Les Républicains party was the early favourite.
But after unexpectedly defeating Juppé in the party’s primaries and taking over the mantle of frontrunner, Fillon, a self-styled “clean hands” candidate, was accused of giving his wife and children taxpayer-funded fake jobs.
After slipping badly in the polls, Fillon appears to have stabilised – while Mélenchon, helped by strong performances in two televised debates and a slick campaign, has surged.
Who are Macron and Le Pen and what do they want?
After studying at the elite Sciences Po and École Nationale d’Administration, Emmanuel Macron, 39, was briefly a civil servant before becoming a Rothschild’s banker and then an adviser and economy minister in Hollande’s government.
He has never held elected office and says he wants to break the “complacency and vacuity” of French politics. An energetic optimist who claims to be neither left nor right but “pragmatic and fair”, he is economically liberal and pro-business but a progressive on social issues.
Marine Le Pen, 48, is the third daughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made the run-off in 2002. A lawyer, she has both detoxified the party and distanced herself from it since taking over in a bitter power struggle in 2011.
Le Pen – who is also embroiled in a fake jobs scandal, but at the European parliament – wants to end immigration, slash crime, eradicate Islamism, pull France out of Europe and save it from globalisation.
Her “economic nationalism” will favour French business, she promises, while “France-first” social policies in housing, health, education and employment will favour French people.
Who are Fillon and Melenchon and what do they want?
Fillon, 63, was former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years. An archetypal provincial French conservative, he appeals particularly to France’s Catholic right – still loyal, despite his legal woes – and its desire to preserve traditional family values.
Economically he is way more radical, promising shock Thatcherite reforms including cutting taxes and public spending, slashing public sector jobs, raising the retirement age, freeing up labour laws and breaking trade union power.
Mélenchon, 65, was a junior Socialist minister from 2000 to 2002. As the caustic, impassioned head of La France Insoumise (Untamed France), his policies include shortening the working week, lowering the retirement age, raising the minimum wage and social security benefits, and taxing top earners at 90%.
He also wants to abandon nuclear power, abolish the presidential regime of the Fifth Republic, and in foreign affairs withdraw from Nato, develop warmer ties with Russia, and renegotiate the terms of France’s EU membership – with the promise of an in-out referendum afterwards.
The official Socialist party candidate, leftwing rebel and former education minister Benoît Hamon, 49, has slumped as Mélenchon has risen. Aiming to move his party firmly to the left after Hollande’s dismal, muddled presidency, his most eye-catching policy is the introduction of a universal basic income.
What are the issues?
The Paris and Nice terror attacks that claimed nearly 230 lives in 2015 and 2016 weigh heavily on this election and have helped Le Pen drag the agenda onto her preferred ground of security, immigration, Islam and national identity.
To this she and Mélenchon have added the questions of Europe – from whose yoke Le Pen argues France must free itself before it can flourish – and of an immoral, out-of-touch governing elite and sclerotic political system.
But this election is also, and perhaps mostly, about the persistent malaise of a country whose economy has stagnated for years now and where unemployment is stuck stubbornly above 10%. Labour laws, job creation, taxation and social and welfare provision are all key campaign themes.
Who will win?
Polls currently show Le Pen and Macron neck-and-neck in the first round, with Fillon and Mélenchon nipping at their heels between three and six points behind.
In the second round, Macron would beat Le Pen by 20 points or more, and also defeat Fillon and Mélenchon. Fillon would beat Le Pen but lose to either of the other two, while Mélenchon would beat Le Pen and Fillon but lose to Macron.
Most observers doubt Le Pen can win more than 50% of the second-round vote. But there are caveats. Her support is more solid: in surveys, Le Pen’s voters mostly say they are certain to support their chosen candidate; Macron’s tend not to be so sure.
There is no precedent for a Macron victory: no centrist has ever occupied the Elysée palace, nor any candidate running without the political and logistical backing of one of the traditional left or rightwing parties.
In past elections, the two-round system has allowed voters from both left and right to form a united “Republican front” against any FN candidate who makes it to the second round. So far, that pact has largely held.
But some observers worry it is now vulnerable. They say voters are so disaffected, and consider politicians so corrupt and ineffective, that the pact could be seen more as the political class saving its skin rather than a bulwark against extremism.
One recent survey showed 89% of French voters believe politicians do not listen to them. How angry, demoralised people vote will be decisive. And an unforeseen event, such as another major terrorist attack, could yet change the whole dynamic of the race.
What happens after the new president is elected?
Without a majority in parliament, a French president’s powers are limited. Critically, a month after the second round of the presidential poll, France holds legislative elections, also over two rounds, on 11 and 18 June.
How those turn out will determine whether the new president can actually govern. Macron, who will field candidates from his youthful En Marche! movement, would need to build a new kind of majority from however many of his own candidates win seats, plus centrist MPs from both sides of the political divide.
The FN, which currently has only two MPs, would be extremely unlikely to get anywhere near the 289 Le Pen would need for a majority in the assembly, effectively leaving her unable to run the country – a problem Mélenchon would also face.
Both may find it hard to implement their more radical proposals. For example, article 88-1 of the French constitution states that France is part of the EU. Constitutional change requires the backing of both the lower house and the senate, plus in some cases a referendum.
And while presidents can in principle call a referendum without parliamentary support, they need the approval of the constitutional court to do so. In practice, a plebiscite on leaving the EU may be difficult, if not impossible, for either to call.