Before President Trump. Before Brexit. Before the whole, cresting wave of anti-establishment politics, France already had a powerful, “our country first” party: the National Front. And after decades on the political margin, it is closer to capturing the French presidency than ever before — thanks in large part to its charismatic leader, Marine le Pen.
Against Le Pen stand two fellow outsiders and a scandal-plagued conservative: Emmanuel Macron, a wonky centrist with little political experience; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a longtime politician who defected from the socialists to the even-further left; and Francois Fillon, a former prime minister currently under indictment for curruption.
If that sounds unusual, it may be a sign of politics to come. The defining divide is no longer left vs. right. Instead, it’s insider vs. outsider, as we saw with Trump and Hillary Clinton. Or sometimes a worker-friendly populist like Le Pen against a business-friendly cosmopolitan like Macron (for context, think: Steve Bannon vs. Michael Bloomberg.)
France’s presidential election actually happens in two stages. Phase one is Sunday, when the top two candidates will earn the right to compete in a winner-take all runoff. Polls are tight, the outcome remains highly uncertain, and the impact of Thursday’s terrorist attack on Paris police officers is impossible to predict. Here’s what you need to know.
Of the eleven candidates officially in the running, only four are considered serious contenders.
Marine le Pen. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was one of the founders of the National Front and its longtime leader, though in his days it was known as a redoubt for racism, including holocaust denial. Marine has worked hard to distance herself from that legacy, including booting her dad from the party in 2015.
Le Pen’s platform blends anti-immigrant policies with pro-french-worker economic changes, includes things like: ending free trade deals, taxing companies who hire foreign workers, reducing income taxes on working-class households, and holding a referendum on whether to leave the EU (“Frexit”).
Note that there’s nothing subtle about Le Pen’s anti-immigrant messaging. Last week, she warned that Macron would continue the “multicultural drift” that is “sinking” France, adding that his election would mean the further advance of “Islamism.”
Emmanuel Macron. Few expected Macron to rank among the frontrunners, but his independent “En Marche! (On the Move!)” movement has won converts with its hopeful bent and pragmatic approach.
At just 39, Macron would be the youngest president in French history, but quick success has been a hallmark of his life, from his school days to his time as an investment banker and economic minister (not to mention the unusual courtship that eventually convinced his high school teacher to divorce her husband and marry him instead.)
Ideologically, Macron takes a “best of both worlds” approach, combining traditionally leftist values like diversity and workplace fairness with a more center-right commitment to business flexibility and limited economic deregulation. He wants France to remain a key player in the European Union, and would maintain the open border policy that allows EU citizens to travel freely into France.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The last time France held presidential elections, back in 2012, Mélenchon made a surprisingly strong showing, even though he came up short in the end. A well-respected speaker with a long history of government service, he left the socialist party in 2008 to found a farther-left movement with distinctly anti-EU views.
His mix of policy preferences may seem rather unfamiliar from a US perspective, but it harkens back to the communist-inflected politics of his earliest days. That includes a 100 percent tax on all income over 400,000 euros, a disdain for traditional elites (who he feels have privileged economic efficiency over all else), and an openness towards better relations with Russia.
François Fillon. 2017 was supposed to be Fillon’s year. He entered the race as the well-respected leader of France’s right-leaning party, a former prime minister with nothing but untested outsiders to stop him. Scandal, however, has weighed on his campaign, after it was discovered that he funneled government money to his wife under the guise that she was working as his “parliamentary assistant.” An official investigation was launched in March, but Fillon has refused to drop out of the race.
Despite his decades-long record as a defender of France’s mixed economy, Fillon is running on a hard-line free market platform. And that’s not the only change in his outlook. He has also shifted right on immigration, sometimes borrowing from Le Pen’s anti-Islamic rhetoric. In his campaign book, for instance, he openly worries about the “bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life.”
It’s generally a two-part process. In round one, a broad field of candidates compete to see who can garner the most votes. Should anyone get 50 percent of the vote, that candidate can advance directly to the presidential palace. But with eleven aspirants, that’s unlikely to happen.
Instead, the top two vote-getters will have two weeks of additional campaign time before squaring off in a winner-take-all second round on May 7.
Even winning, however, is no guarantee of power. As in the US, a lot depends on whether your party also controls the legislature. If so, the president and prime minister can work together to advance their joint agenda. But otherwise, the next French president will be extremely constrained — with some sway over foreign policy, but little room on domestic issues and no veto power over new laws.
For that reason, the moment a president is chosen, all attention is likely to shift toward parliamentary elections, scheduled for June.
ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for a Thursday shootout in Paris, duing which a lone gunman killed a police officer and wounded several others. Whether this reminder of the terrorist threat will sway voters is unclear, but some research suggests that terrorist attacks can help candidates with strong anti-terrorist credentials and even undermine support for immigration and immigrants.
Russia counts as a second unpredictable elemnt. It looks increasingly like Russia is trying to swing the French election, using the tools it honed during the US presidential campaign: fake news and hacking. In this case, though, they have an additional advantage: three of the four lead candidates have taken a rather soft, pro-Putin line. The only holdout is Macron, whose campaign computers have apparently come under regular assault.
Also open is the question of Fillon’s buoyancy. Recent polls suggest a late uptick in support for the scandal-plagued candidate, perhaps a sign that voters are eager for something familiar amidst this pack of outsiders.
Betting markets give the best odds to Macron and Le Pen, which would setup a second-round clash between center and fringe, optimist and doomsayer, pragmatist and rabble-rouser.
If that happens, Macron would seem to have an advantage — because he can mount the kind of “no to racism” campaign that has kept the national front at bay for decades. For the same reason, a Fillon vs. Le Pen final would probably tilt Fillon’s way, with mainstream voters rallying against her more unpredictable proposals, including an unimaginably-disruptive plan to switch back to the Franc.
By far the most incendiary possibility, however, is a matchup between the two fiery populists, Le Pen and Mélenchon. That far-left vs. far-right showdown would force the French mainstream — and French business — into a kind of political exile, leaving them with no good options.
What is more, it would portend a change in France unlike anything so far wrought by Trump or Brexit: a worker-first, my-country-first, anti-market, no-to-Europe, yes-to-Russia approach to daily politics.