Who's who in the French presidential election?

With months to go until the final vote, the battle for the Élysée Palace has already proven extraordinary...

Who's who in the French presidential election?

Francois Fillon. Picture by Christophe Ena AP/Press Association Images

There are still months to go until France decides on Francois Hollande's successor, but the country's presidential race has already attracted plenty of international attention.

France remains a deeply divided society, with deep cultural and economic rifts. This year's election comes in a fraught domestic and international climate: increasing Euroscepticism in the aftermath of the Brexit vote; the rise of the far-right and populism; a deeply unpopular president in Francois Hollande; and a country rocked by several major terrorist attacks and incidents.

Over the last 12 months or so, dozens have expressed their interest in running for the French presidency, but in recent weeks a few clear front-runners have emerged. However, it has also proven a lively and indeed dramatic contest, already rocked by several major surprises. With all that in mind: who's who in the race towards the Élysée Palace?

A quick note on the mechanics of the election. The French presidential vote will follow a 'two round' process. The first vote will take place on April 23rd. This will see the full field of candidates narrowed down to two, who will both progress to a run-off election on May 7th. In essence, this means voters will have numerous candidates to choose from in April, but they will only have two choices when they return to polling booths in May. 

Francois Fillon

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2017 file photo, conservative French presidential candidate Francois Fillon applauds while his wife Penelope looks on. Image: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

If this piece was written only a few weeks ago, conservative Francois Fillon would have been considered the runaway favourite. What a difference a fortnight in politics can make.

The former French prime minister managed a decisive win against another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, in last year's primary to choose the candidate for the conservative Republican party. Running with a list of clear centre-right policies, Fillon quickly established a lead in polls as a solid establishment politician who would almost certainly defeat the far-right Marine Le Pen - making the once safe assumption, of course, that they would both advance to the second round.

The controversy that has changed matters is what has been dubbed 'Penelope-gate'. Penelope is Mr Fillon's British wife, who was employed as Mr Fillon's parliamentary assistant over eight years. A number of French media outlets have alleged that she never actually carried out the job she was paid hundreds of thousands of euro for. Further reports have alleged some of his children were also paid public money for "fake jobs".

The matter escalated last week with the re-emergence of an interview in which Mrs Fillon herself suggested she had "never actually been his assistant or anything like that". 

A preliminary investigation has been launched into the allegations of 'fake jobs', and Mr Fillon initially suggested 'shadowy forces' were aiming to discredit him. He has dismissed and downplayed the claims, insisting he has "nothing to hide".

The impact of the scandal on his popularity, however, has been obvious to behold. A number of recent polls have seen him trailing behind both Le Pen and a new contender in the form of Emmanuel Macron (more on both shortly). While 'second round' polls have shown Fillon would likely emerge triumphant in a run-off with Le Pen, it is now in fact Macron who could complicate Fillon even advancing to the May ballot.

There have been calls for Mr Fillon to step aside and let another Republican candidate contest the election instead, but the candidate has pledged to continue on. 

Marine Le Pen

Far-right leader presidential candidate Marine Le Pen| Image: PA images

The Le Pen name is well established within French politics. One of the most extraordinary presidential elections in French history took place in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right National Front, unexpectedly progressed to the second-round election with the then-president Jacques Chirac (who was running for a second term). Widespread opposition to Le Pen across the traditional left-right political divide led to a landslide victory for Chirac (himself a controversial figure), but Le Pen's disruption shook French politics.

Fifteen years later, it is Jean-Marie's daughter Marine who leads the National Front. This year marks her second time contesting the presidency, after she failed to progress to the second round in 2012. The MEP's ideological approach is generally similar to other far-right politicians who have enjoyed major gains in Europe and the US in recent years - nationalist, Eurosceptic, and anti-establishment. She has frequently expressed hardline views on Islamic fundamentalism.

In a speech launching her campaign over the weekend, she declared: "What is at stake in this election [...] is whether France can still be a free nation. The divide is not between the left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists!".

Although an unsurprisingly divisive figure, Le Pen has consistently polled well among the first round candidates - with average levels of support in the mid to late 20s. Most recent polls have shown her 3-5% ahead of other presidential hopefuls.

Although it's a safe bet that Le Pen will progress to the final vote, she will face serious challenges in the run-off. Polls in the aftermath of the 'Penelope-gate' allegations have shown Fillon would emerge with roughly 60% of the vote to Le Pen's 40% - a drop from some of the highest numbers recorded for Fillon last year, but still a comfortable margin. In the alternative and increasingly likely scenario of a Macron/Le Pen showdown, polls show an even more comfortable lead for Le Pen's rival.

However, if Brexit and Donald Trump have taught us anything, it's to approach opinion polls with plenty of caution and to never underestimate the appeal of the far-right...

Emmanuel Macron

Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Picture by Michel Euler AP/Press Association Images

Although the Fillon scandal has added some unexpected drama to what had been expected to be a reasonably straightforward contest, it's Emmanuel Macron's candidacy that has really livened up what was thought to be a two-horse race.

The 39-year-old former economy minister has left the Socialist party to become an independent. Last year he set up En Marche! (On the Move) - a socially progressive group that is pledging to shake up the existing French political structures. Macron is pro-business, and has run a campaign calling for unity. His centrist positioning on many key issues is likely to offer a middle ground for those put off by the more extreme rhetoric of those on the far right and indeed left.

On the subject of the National Front, Mr Macron has suggested: "They betray liberty by shrinking our horizons, they betray equality by stating that some are more equal than others, they betray fraternity because they hate the faces that don't look like theirs."

Macron has made major gains in recent months, and some commentators have suggested a Le Pen/Macron run-off is looking like an increasing possibility. His rallies draw thousands of people, and he has enjoyed an upwards trajectory in the polls. Although he faces a tough contest against Fillon in the first round - with left-wing candidates also splitting the voter base - the momentum behind his campaign suggests the Élysée Palace may not be such a pipe dream for the young hopeful.

Benoît Hamon & Jean-luc Melenchon

Benoît Hamon. Image: Francois Mori AP/Press Association Images

The Socialist party candidate Benoît Hamon has inherited something of a poison chalice, given the incredibly low approval ratings of the current Socialist President Francois Hollande.

Hamon, for his part, overcame a challenge by former prime minister Manuel Valls to secure his party's nomination in the primary election. He is a former MEP and national education minister who resigned from Hollande's cabinet in response to the outgoing president's shift towards pro-business policies.

Mr Hamon is notably further to the left of Mr Hollande. Some of his core policies include the creation of a universal basic income, a heavy focus on environmental policies, and the removal of some of the obstacles facing refugees and asylum seekers. One of his more unusual policies is a 'tax on robots' to finance social protection measures and help workers who have been 'replaced' by machines.

The left-leaning nature of his politics and the unpopularity of Mr Hollande are likely significant obstacles blocking Mr Hamon's progress to the second round, not to mention Macron's apparently effective efforts to win over more moderate left-leaning voters. The most recent polls have shown the Socialist hopeful around the 14-18% mark - results which put him in fourth place, although hot on the heels of a flagging Fillon. 

Further to the left again is Jean-luc Melenchon, who finished fourth in the 2012 first round. Backed by several left-leaning groups, Melenchon is running with the 'Unsubmissive France' organisation and is currently polling at around 10-11% support.

In one of the most unusual scenes of the race so far, Melenchon made headlines around the world when he 'appeared' at two rallies at once with the assistance of holographic technology:

Although it seems as if these two candidates have little hope of progressing to the final vote, nothing remains outside the realm of possibility in what is already proving an extraordinary political showdown.

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