25th Feb 2018


France holds nail-biting 'anti-system' vote

  • The keyword in the campaign has been "anti-system", as angry voters and protest parties like Le Pen's National Front attempt to redraw the political landscape (Photo: Reuters/Robert Pratta)

The French election has come down to three men, a woman, and six possibilities for a run-off contest.

But pollsters have warned that predictions were harder than ever as 47 million French people prepare to cast their vote on Sunday (23 April) in the first round of a presidential election seen as being crucial for the future of the EU.

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  • Macron is seen as France's last hope. But can he pass the first round? (Photo: Reuters)

A far-right leader (Marine le Pen), a leftist firebrand (Jean-Luc Melenchon), a social-liberal newcomer (Emmanuel Macron), and a conservative former prime minister charged with financial wrongdoing (Francois Fillon) could still get the keys to the Elysee Palace.

The seven other contenders, the so-called “small candidates”, who for most of them have Trotskyist or anti-EU agendas, lag far behind in polls.

Rarely ever has a French election been so full of twists and uncertainties, in already nervous times in a country that has lived under a state of emergency since the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015.

The shooting of a police officer on the Champs Elysees, the most famous avenue in Paris, on Thursday evening, just as candidates took part in their last TV debate, encapsulated the situation.

The attack, by the Islamic State jihadist group, caused shock but it is difficult to say what impact it will have on voters’ thinking.

The terror threat is just one of many concerns in a country marred by low growth, a high debt and deficit, massive unemployment, social and ethnic tensions, and a growing loss of self-confidence at a time when both French and European influence is waning on the world stage.

The net result is the buzzword "anti-system" - a feeling of anger that has fed the protest parties trying to redraw the old political landscape.

Electoral accident?

The main beneficiary of what resembles a slow-motion earthquake has been far-right leader Marine Le Pen. 

She has led in almost all opinion polls for more than a year, with the only question on people’s lips being who would face her in the second round.

Prevailing wisdom says the anti-EU, anti-migrant, and protectionist politician would not win the second round on 7 May because voters would form a so-called "republican front" to prevent her coming to power.

A study published by Le Monde in March showed that 33 percent of French people "totally" agreed with her ideas, while 62 percent "totally" disagreed. A majority, 58 percent, also thought that her party, the National Front (FN) was "a danger to democracy".

But in the current atmosphere, Le Pen could still win the race in what would amount to an electoral accident.

Le Pen can rely on a strong core of supporters to go to the ballot box, but if she ends up running against a controversial candidate to whom large segments of the electorate cannot relate then a high abstention rate in the second round would play into her hands.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, from the France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement, an alliance of radical left parties including the Communist Party, has also become a credible anti-system contender.

Melenchon came out late in the campaign as the fourth man. An ally of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis who holds anti-German views, he wants to renegotiate EU treaties to end austerity policies, to tax the rich, to spend more to boost growth, and to establish a new constitution that gives more power to ordinary people.

Melenchon, a former socialist who broke with the Socialist Party several years ago, is the left-wing answer to Le Pen.

Both have targeted working class voters and alienated parts of French society in messages which claimed that they represented the people.

 Both have prospered on France's yearning for change combined with an anxiety about developments seen as being imposed by the EU or by globalisation.

The main victim of the apprehensive mood has been the outgoing socialist president, Francois Hollande.

In December, Hollande said he would not stand for re-election, a first since the times when presidents became elected by universal suffrage.

Hollande, from the Socialist Party, stood so low in opinion polls that he would have most likely been crushed in the first round and his curse is still hangs round the neck of his political family.

His prime minister, Manuel Valls, was defeated in a party primary. The candidate chosen instead, Benoit Hamon, is trailing at less than 10 percent of voting intentions despite being a critic of both Hollande and Valls.

Fillon down but not out

On the other side of the spectrum, the efforts to bring a conservative back to power have also showed signs of the political instability in the EU’s second biggest country.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who hoped to take his revenge against Hollande, was kicked out in the first round of his Republicans’ primary.

His main rival, Alain Juppe, a former prime minister and foreign affairs minister, was the favourite to become the party’s candidate and even the country’s president, but he was beaten in the primary by Sarkozy’s former PM, Francois Fillon, who succeeded in mobilising the party’s conservative core.

Fillon once looked like a favourite, but he has been weakened by media revelations that his wife and two of his children were paid as parliamentary assistants despite there being no proof they did any work.

He also faced revelations that he was offered two suits worth €13,000 by a lawyer with close links to African leaders and that he was paid $50,000 (€47,000) to help a Lebanese businessman meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

He first said that he would quit the presidential race if he was charged over the family fake jobs case, but when that actually happened in March, he accused the judges and Hollande of a conspiracy to prevent him from being elected.

He resisted efforts by other Republicans leaders to have him replaced by Juppe. He is now in third place in voting intentions, at around 20 percent - down, but not out.

Fresh political offer

The crisis in the Socialist party, divided over whether to stick to leftist policies or embrace liberal reforms, and in the Republicans has created the political space for a newcomer - Emmanuel Macron.

Macron, a 39-year old civil servant and former banker at Rothschild, who was Hollande’s economic adviser and economy minister, is running without a party and still does not know on what kind of majority he could rely on in Parliament if he gets through.

But his En Marche! (Marching forward!) movement has given a fresh option to voters who were disenchanted with the political establishment.

His programme - a mix of social-democratic and economically liberal ideas, with an emphasis on structural reforms and individual projects - has struck a chord with young, urban, and pro-EU segments of French society.

Macron is being supported by many of Hollande’s ministers, including Valls, and some Republicans figures like former PM Dominique de Villepin, giving him more weight.

From Schaeuble to Obama

In a sign of Macron’s wide appeal, he has the support in Germany of both social-democratic vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and conservative finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. The British liberal weekly The Economist also endorsed him.

On Thursday, En Marche! said that Macron had even had a "friendly phone call" from former US president Barack Obama in which they talked about "the progressive values to which both are much attached".

But Obama’s office said that "an endorsement was not the purpose of the call, as president Obama is not making any formal endorsement in advance of the run-off".

A thirty-something politician who has never faced the ballot box before is now considered as France’s, and even Europe’s, best hope for future stability.

Polls say he would beat Le Pen, Fillon, or Melenchon in the second round, but the question remains whether he will pass the first round.

Between a quarter and a third of voters were still undecided as the official campaign ended on Friday, with many saying that they will chose at the last minute.

Tactical vote

In the last hours before the election, "tactical vote" possibilities have dominated discussions between experts in the media and between friends, family members, and cafe goers.

At issue is who would be the best candidate to beat Le Pen on 7 May and how to ensure that either the left or the right are represented in the run-off.

In this game, Macron is the one with the most to gain, and Le Pen with the one the most to lose.

The most likely possibility for a run-off, according to the latest polls, is Le Pen against Macron. But Le Pen-Fillon or Macron-Fillon remain possible, while Melenchon could still put the cat among the pigeons by scraping through.

Recent polls suggest many voters are turning to Macron as the best defence against Le Pen, as he could gather votes from both the centre-left and centre-right in the second round. With his centrist positioning, he has become the most attractive candidate for people who feel uneasy about Fillon and Melenchon.

But as the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the US have shown, opinion polls often fail to spot the full extent of the anti-system feeling among contemporary voters.

Alternative polls

Fillon aides and friendly media, such as Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing weekly, have been keen to mention polls by Filteris, a Canadian digital audit firm that was proved right on Brexit and Trump.

Filteris does not ask voters about their intentions but looks at trends and big data on the internet to assess the candidates' impact, and predicts a second round run-off between Fillon and Le Pen.

Macron, who has been accused by his opponents of being the media's candidate, looks vulnerable from other perspectives.

Despite pollsters' claims the the samples they use are representative of the whole electorate, no one has demonstrated for sure that the newcomer has traction among small-town, middle-class voters - one of the most decisive groups.

Fillon, on the other hand, has strong support among voters who are aged 65 or above - another crucial group. His performance shows that many right-wing voters will still chose their side’s candidate despite the whiff of scandal on fake jobs and African gifts

For left-wing voters, the tactical option is a choice between Melenchon, who is closer to the convictions of many of them, and Macron, who would have a better chance against Le Pen.

Le Pen's limited stock

If Macron is to win, he will have to resist the potential mobilisation of Fillon and Melenchon voters who want ether the right or the left to run against Le Pen.

But for the far-right leader, who has lost ground in recent polls, the danger is quite similar.

As the campaign came to a close and the consequences of her plans to exit the euro and the EU were picked apart in media debates, there were signs that she could once again hit the "glass ceiling" that prevented the National Front from winning any region in the 2015 local elections.

Fillon and Macron's strong rhetoric after Thursday's attack on the Champs Elysees may also deprive Le Pen of a trump card to resist tactical votes in favour of her two main competitors.

Le Pen's stock of potential votes is solid but appears to be limited. A turnout that is higher than expected and a strong vote for her three main competitors could diminish her percentage share of the total votes and push her out of the second round.

An old saying in French politics is that "in the first round of the presidential election, you chose [your favourite candidate], in the second round you eliminate [the one you don't want as president]".

At the end of an extraordinary campaign that put many leading figures out of the game, the old saying could be either a blessing or a curse for Macron and Le Pen, the last two favourites.

French campaign ends in uncertainty and fear

Several presidential candidates cancelled their last meetings after a policeman was killed in an attack on Paris’s Champs Elysees. Pollsters say the race will be very tight on Sunday.

European right hopes Macron will save France

With Fillion all-but out of the election, a senior European politician said "committees" are working on what to do if Le Pen wins and takes France out of the EU.

Voters 'change face' of French politics

Newcomer Macron and far-right leader Le Pen qualified for the presidential election run-off in a vote that pushed aside the two main traditional parties.


French election run-off: Far right vs. EU

The run-off of the French presidential election will pit a pro-EU social-liberal Macron against anti-EU Marine Le Pen. Macron is likely to win but far-right support is higher than ever.

Far-right parties re-register to access EU funds

After missing a funding deadline, the far-right nationalist Alliance for Peace and Freedom and the Alliance of European National Movements are back in the game and possibly eligible for EU money in 2019.

Commission tells Macron to pick political side

A European Commission paper calls on parties to show their colours before the May 2019 parliament elections, and to choose their successor to Juncker before the end of 2018.

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