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French Presidential Elections: What you need to know

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Next month, France will go to the polls in the first round of its presidential election - with a second round on 7th May, should no candidate win a majority. Here’s everything you need to know.

Background

Following extremely low approval ratings, reaching just 4% last November, François Hollande became the first incumbent president of the Fifth Republic to announce he would not seek re-election.

The latter are usually a two-horse race between France’s two major political parties: the centre-right Les Républicains (“The Republicans”, formerly UMP), and the centre-left Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party, PS). However, Hollande’s unpopularity, political scandals, and the recent Brexit and Trump victory have given rise to uncertainty regarding the result and given way to previously less prevalent and new political parties.

Who are the candidates?

To be eligible for the first round, aspiring candidates must secure 500 signatures from election officials from around the country – called “parrainages”. Candidates have from 25th February until 17th March to secure the signatures, with the final list of candidates posted on 21st March. Here are the five most prominent candidates:

Marine Le Pen - Front-National (FN)

Succeeding her father Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader of the far-right, populist and nationalist FN in 2011, Marine Le Pen has been undertaking an “un-demonisation” of the party. Indeed, under her father’s leadership - largely seen as an anti-Semite and racist - the party developed a toxic and extremist image. Marine’s plan seems to be working: the latest opinion polls place her in the lead with 27%. In the 2012 elections, she finished third in the first round, with 17.90% of votes.

Could she win? Le Pen was one of the first to congratulate Trump and the “free” American people on his win. Brexit and the US elections have left many fearing - or hoping for - an FN win. However, the party’s somewhat negative reputation still hovers, and many remain doubtful Le Pen could win the second round of the elections.

François Fillon - Les Républicains (LR)

An open admirer of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, Fillon - who served as Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency - aims to higher the country’s economy by reducing its public sector and cutting 500,000 civil-service jobs. He started his campaign with a Mr Clean image, but this changed in January when a scandal emerged: his Welsh wife Penelope received a salary amounting to €600,000 in the span of eight years, for a fictitious job as her husband’s parliamentary assistant.

Could he win? Previously seen as a frontrunner, “Penelopegate” plunged Fillon’s campaign into chaos, with many calling for his resignation. He currently holds the third position in the opinion polls, with 20%.

Emmanuel Macron - En Marche! (Forward!)

After becoming Hollande’s Minister of Economy in 2014, ex-investment banker Macron surprised France (and angered Hollande) by resigning from the government and starting his own centrist political movement. Macron is seen as pro-European and as a breath of fresh air in French Politics. He calls for a “democratic Revolution” in France, looking to appeal to those disillusioned with the country’s politics. He is also well known for having married his high school teacher, more than 20 years his senior.

Could he win? Macron is currently second in opinion polls. Fillon’s scandal - in addition to other centrist politician François Bayrou endorsing him instead of running against him - have increased his chances of making it to the second round. However, his young age (he's 39 years old), as well as his relative lack of political experience might prove to be his Achilles’ heel. In fact, he has been criticised for seeming to lack a concrete plan for his presidency.

Benoît Hamon - Partie Socialiste (PS)

Hamon’s win in the PS Primary (which elected the party’s presidential candidate) came as a surprise, with many expecting PM Manuel Valls to take the lead. A Bernie Sanders admirer, and deemed "the French Jeremy Corbyn", his aims include introducing a monthly basic income for all and large investments in renewable energy. He also supports the legalisation of cannabis and euthanasia.

Could he win? Currently fourth in opinion polls, Hamon has proven a popular candidate. However, Hollande’s staining of the PS, as well as his very liberal policies in a Brexit and Trump era makes it hard to see him pass the first round - although his surprise win in is party’s primary show that he is capable of overturning the odds.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon - La France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”)

Previously a member of the PS, Mélenchon - positioned as the people’s candidate - started his own left-wing political movement last year. Backed by the Communist Party, he finished fourth in France’s 2012 Presidential election (behind Hollande, Sarkozy and Le Pen).

Could he win? Despite a dynamic campaign - which included a Hologram meeting - Mélenchon remains an unlikely winner of the Presidential elections, with most voters favouring more centred candidates.

Conclusion 

The current opinion has Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the second round, with Macron winning in a comfortable victory by raking Hamon’s, Mélenchon’s, and a part of Fillon’s supporters. However, if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that politics can be unpredictable and that we won’t be sure until the results are in.

Opinion poll numbers are taken from Le Express.

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