France elects a new president in two rounds of voting on April 23 and May 7. Opinion polls have forecast for more than two years that the populist, nationalist and authoritarian Marine Le Pen could win the first round.
The polls suggest that Le Pen, who has promised to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on France’s EU membership, would then lose in the second round run-off to a more mainstream candidate.
On present form, that will be Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist economy minister running as an independent centrist, or — less likely — Francois Fillon, a former right-wing prime minister hit by an alleged corruption scandal.
But after the shocks of Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US, many are wary of polls. The campaign has sprung any number of surprises and a Le Pen presidency is seen as at least possible.
While it might be hard for her to deliver on many of her pledges, a President Le Pen would deal a massive symbolic blow to Europe, send financial markets into turmoil, and be seen as the next step in a populist, anti-establishment insurgency.
A victory for Macron, on the other hand, would point to a future for centrist, pro-European politics and, after the defeat of Geert Wilders in recent Dutch elections, suggest the 2016 UK and US upsets may not necessarily herald the end of liberalism and the EU.
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 per cent 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: on present polling, 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 per cent of the vote, its highest-ever score. But France’s two-round system has so far kept it from power.
This year, with the left-wing Socialist party (PS) in disarray after the disastrous five-year term of the outgoing president, Francois Hollande, former prime minister Alain Juppe from the right-wing Les Republicains party was the early favourite.
But after unexpectedly defeating Juppe in the party’s primaries, Fillon, a self-styled “clean hands” candidate, was accused of giving his wife and children taxpayer-funded fake jobs and is now under formal investigation. He has plunged in the polls.
Who are Fillon, Macron and Le Pen, and what do they want?
After studying at the elite Sciences Po and Ecole 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.
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 judicial 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.
Who else is standing?
Of the eight remaining candidates in the first round, only two are currently polling above 10 per cent: Benoit Hamon, the official Socialist party candidate, and the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Hamon, 49, a former education minister and left-wing rebel, aims to move his party firmly to the left after Hollande’s dismal, muddled presidency left it divided and demoralised. His most eye-catching policy, besides legalising cannabis, is the introduction of a universal basic income.
Melenchon, 65, was once a junior Socialist minister and finished fourth in the 2012 presidential race. As the brash, outspoken head of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France), he wants a Sixth Republic, fiscal justice, an end to austerity and a new ecological order — including pulling France out of nuclear power.
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 has added the question of Europe, from whose yoke she says France must free itself before it can flourish. And she rails against an immoral, out-of-touch elite — territory Fillon has also explored with attacks on the judiciary and media.
But the 2017 French 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 per cent. Labour laws, job creation, taxation and social and welfare provision are all key campaign themes.
Who will win?
The polls have not shifted significantly for some time: Le Pen and Macron are neck-and-neck in the first round, with Fillon seven or more points behind and Hamon and Mélenchon trailing.
In the second round, Macron is predicted to beat Le Pen by 20-plus points. Fillon, should he make it, also beats Le Pen, but by less than half the margin. (That looks a more uncertain scenario: many on the left would find it hard to vote for Fillon.)
Most observers doubt Le Pen can win more than 50 per cent 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 Elysee palace, nor any candidate running without the political and logistical backing of one of the traditional left or right-wing 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 per cent 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?
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.
She could face other obstacles. Article 88-1 of the French constitution, for example, states that France is part of the European Union. 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 now need the approval of the constitutional court to do so. In practice, Le Pen may find a plebiscite on leaving the EU impossible.