A primer for this weekend's French presidential election

The first of two rounds of voting takes place tomorrow...

A primer for this weekend's French presidential election

Picture by: Apaydin Alain/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

After months of campaigning, this Sunday French voters will choose which two candidates will face off to become the country’s next president.

The French presidential election follows  a 'two round' process. This weekend’s vote will see the full field of candidates narrowed down to two, who will both progress to a runoff election on May 7th. In essence, this means voters will have numerous candidates to choose from this weekend, but they will only have two choices when they return to polling booths in a fortnight.

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 outgoing president in Francois Hollande; and a France 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 a few clear front-runners have emerged. However, it has also proven a lively and indeed dramatic contest, already rocked by several major surprises and scandals. Indeed, the first round vote remains too close to call, with polls suggesting four candidates are all in with a very real chance of progressing past Sunday’s poll.

With all that in mind: who's who in the race towards the Élysée Palace?

Marine Le Pen

Presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen arrives on stage at a campaign meeting at Le Zenith concert hall in Paris. Picture by: Marechal Aurore/ABACA/ABACA/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. Le Pen - who has faced numerous charges of racism and antisemitism over the years - cemented his position as one of the most infamous figures in French politics.

Fifteen years later, it is Jean-Marie's daughter Marine who leads the National Front. Marine has sought to ‘rehabilitate’ the party from the negative reputation let behind up by her estranged father, who has since been expelled from the party.

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, while campaign pledges include a referendum on France’s EU membership.

Marine Le Pen. Picture by: Jean-Francois Badias/AP/Press Association Images

Although an unsurprisingly divisive figure, Le Pen has consistently polled well among the first round candidates - with average levels of support in the 20s. In a race that has seen many wild poll fluctuations, her popularity has remained relatively solid - although most recent polls have shown her support levels either on par or slightly behind centrist Emmanuel Macron.

While Le Pen progressing to the final vote remains a very likely outcome, she would face serious challenges in the runoff. Polls on hypothetical second round votes have consistently shown Le Pen trailing behind all her main rivals. In a race against Macron, the gap is widest - polls regularly show the centrist enjoying a lead of more than 20 points. The gaps narrow somewhat in polls that consider a runoff against either Francois Fillon or Jean-Luc Mélenchon - both significantly more divisive candidates than Macron - but the divide is still considerable.

If Brexit and Donald Trump have taught us anything, though, it's to approach opinion polls with plenty of caution and to never underestimate the popular appeal of the far-right…

Emmanuel Macron

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

 

39-year-old former economy minister Emmanuel Macron 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 - in a divisive political climate - has run a campaign calling for unity. His centrist positioning on many key issues is offering a middle ground for those put off by the more extreme rhetoric of those on the far right and indeed left.

Initially a clear outsider, Macron’s recent rallies have drawn thousands of people, and he has enjoyed a mostly upwards trajectory in the polls. While he has dropped slightly compared to the peak levels recorded in March, his support is still in the mid-20s range. 

In second round polling, he is a clear favourite in any three of the most likely match-ups, although results show he would face the biggest challenge against Mélenchon.

Despite the momentum behind the candidate, nothing should be taken for granted. The race is tight, and figures suggest almost a third of voters remain undecided. Even if Macron takes the presidency, it remains to be seen whether that En Marche! could gain the support in the upcoming legislative election to advance his mandate.

Francois Fillon

Francois Fillon. Picture by Francois Mori AP/Press Association Images

The saga of Francois Fillon has been one of the most fascinating stories of the French election.

The former French prime minister secured a decisive win against another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, in last year's primary to choose the candidate for the Republican party. With a list of clear centre-right policies - ranging from public spending cuts to calls for EU reform - Fillon quickly established a lead in polls as a solid establishment politician pledging to clean up corruption.

It was once a safe assumption that he and Le Pen would both advance to the second round, and a Fillon win would almost certainly follow.

Then there was the controversy 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 euros for. Further reports have alleged some of his children were also paid public money for "fake jobs".

French officials have launched an investigation into the allegations.

Mr Fillon initially suggested 'shadowy forces' were aiming to discredit him. He has worked to dismiss and downplay the claims, insisting he has "nothing to hide" - although also acknowledged he made 'mistakes' in the past. He has refused to step aside to allow another Republican candidate to take over.

The impact of the scandal on his popularity has been obvious, with a dramatic drop in support in the aftermath of the allegations. Yet he has managed to hold on, with many recent polls showing him in the 19-20% range. When the 'margin of error' is taken into account, those figures are quite close indeed to the support levels of Macron and Le Pen. He is also in competition with the contest’s other dark horse, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The scandals may have knocked Francois Fillon down, but he is by no means out.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

A hologram of French Left party leader and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election Jean-Luc Melenchon speaks to supporters. Picture by: Laurent Cipriani/AP/Press Association Images

Political veteran and current MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not considered a significant contender for much of the race. But buoyed by strong debate performances and a social media savvy campaign, the 65-year-old has emerged as a considerable force in recent weeks - and could well progress to round two.

Mélenchon is a left-wing candidate - and quite considerably to the left. He left the Socialist party in 2008, and is now running under the ‘Unsubmissive France’ banner. The Guardian reports that his key campaign pledges include a massive €100bn stimulus plan and a reduction in the working week to 32 hours. He has also promised to dramatically increase tax on the wealthy, and to introduce a range of new environmental rules.

Even though Mélenchon is positioned on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Le Pen, they do share one thing in common: Euroscepticism. The far-left candidate has said he will demand fresh negotiations on major EU treaties - and has proposed withdrawing from the union if France’s demands are not met.

Mélenchon has also pledged to pull France out of NATO.

Polls have shown Mélenchon just shy of the 20% mark - but that is double the support he was receiving earlier in the race. He remains very much in contention. A runoff between Le Pen and Mélenchon would be a particularly noteworthy outcome - and one that, regardless of the final vote, would mark a dramatic shift to France’s domestic and international agenda.

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These are not the only candidates, of course.

One other name particularly worth noting is Benoît Hamon. Some of the Socialist candidate’s 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.

The presidential hopeful has, however, inherited something of a poison chalice, given the incredibly low approval ratings of the current Socialist President Francois Hollande. Hamon is currently polling in the 7% range.

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If there’s one takeaway from all this, it’s that everything is to play for. It is late in the race, but Thursday’s suspected terrorist attack in Paris has cast a dark shadow over proceedings - leading to the cancellation of the final public campaign events, and making terrorism & security key talking points in the 48 hours before the polls open.

Even when polls close on Sunday, the election is far from over - and there’ll be two more weeks of intense campaigning ahead of the second round. For now, though, any two of the four main candidates could make it through round one. None of the candidates have much room for complacency, and observers around the world will be keeping a very close eye on the results.