Six Things to Watch for in the French Presidential Election

On April 23, France will head to the polls for what is shaping up to be the most competitive presidential race in decades. Of the eleven candidates running for president, only the top two finishers will head to the second round, which is scheduled for two weeks later. The 2017 presidential campaign has not been short on surprises: scandals that sunk a once certain victory for the right wing, a strong far-right and anti-EU Front National, the rise of Emmanuel Macron (who had never before run for public office), and the demise of the Socialist Party. Still, the biggest shock may be yet to come.

Will pollsters get it right?

Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, and Macron of the pro-EU En Marche! were perceived as the two clear front-runners for the past several weeks, but recently François Fillon of Les Républicains, a conservative Europhile, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Front de Gauche, a far-left Eurosceptic, have been within striking distance. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon, a Europhile, has seen his support plummet to below 10 percent, while the six other candidates are all below 5 percent. Aggregate poll numbers can be found here (in French).

For the first time in decades, it is anyone’s guess as to who will make it to the second round: Four candidates are within a four-point range (polls have a 2 to 3 percentage point margin of error) and one-third of the French electorate has not yet made up their minds.

A record low turnout?

Traditionally, turnout for the presidential election is the highest of any French elections with an average of 80 percent since 1965. This year, it could fall below that figure. Left-wing voters have been disillusioned by the presidency of François Hollande; right-wing voters repelled by Fillon’s scandals—he allegedly paid members of his family for fake jobs while he served in parliament. Many might decide to stay home. Fillon’s hope is that these voters will ultimately head to the polls to prevent Macron, whom he has been trying to depict as the “heir” to the unpopular Hollande, or the far-left Mélenchon from making it to the second round.

Some analysts tend to point to Le Pen as the candidate who could benefit the most from a lower turnout, as her voters have been more active in recent elections and are the most certain of their choice among the leading candidates’ supporters. However, the Front National relies on low-income and less-educated voters, two groups that tend to stay home more than average on election day.

Meanwhile, Macron and Hamon both have fairly fragile bases. Macron’s centrist agenda puts him in a difficult position: He is trying to build a new political landscape by gathering progressives from the left and from the right who would usually vote for different candidates. This volatile electorate may be tempted to “go back home” and vote, for example, for Fillon, or a candidate on the left. 

Can Marine Le Pen top the first round?

Le Pen could very well finish first on April 23. That would be historic. Admittedly, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, representing the Front National, qualified for the second round in a major upset in the 2002 presidential election. However, Marine Le Pen could go well beyond her father’s achievement and even top the current Front National record of 6.82 million votes during the 2015 regional elections, providing yet more evidence that the Front National is now an established political force.

Ultimately, however, polls suggest that Le Pen would lose to any candidate by a wide margin in the runoff.

Can the Macron’s pro-Europe message resonate in 2017 France?

Two years ago, Emmanuel Macron was an unknown. The thirty-nine-year-old had never run for election when he became Hollande’s minister of the economy in 2014. Macron has framed himself as an outsider who wants to go beyond the traditional left/right division of the political spectrum. In this regard, he has been able to push forward his pro-Europe agenda and frame the election as a confrontation between openness and protectionism. An unusual strategy at a time when the French electorate is leaning in an anti-EU direction, and declaring one’s love for Europe can be politically risky.

If he wins, he would also become the youngest ever president of the French Republic.

Is it the end of the Socialist Party?

It’s easy to forget these days that Hollande is still the president of France, and that he led the Socialist Party to a historic victory five years ago. Socialist candidate Hamon is currently stuck below the 10 percent support mark, which would be a dramatic result for the party. His run has been plagued from the beginning by defections to Macron’s camp from the right wing of the Socialist Party, and was hurt in the aftermath of the first presidential debate on March 20 in which Hamon was overshadowed by Mélenchon on his left flank.

The Socialist Party has historically been torn between its left and right wings: the 2017 presidential election might widen that chasm beyond repair and lead to a new political landscape on the left. Such a landscape could mean a strong, far-left party around Mélenchon and a more social-democrat wing around Macron.

Can Les Républicains rebound after Fillon?

Les Républicains were supposed to win this election. It was “promised” to them. Alas, Fillon’s campaign got off to a rocky start when his suggested austere reform of the health care system was broadly criticized. Then he was hit hard by a series of scandals. The former prime minister is now under official investigation for embezzlement of public funds, among other charges.

As noted earlier, however, Fillon is still within striking distance of the second round. The difference between Fillon and Hamon is that Fillon’s own camp has reluctantly stood by him, and Les Républicains has a chance for a strong showing in the legislative elections in June.

Should Fillon win, it would be the first time a presidential candidate under formal investigation is elected. He would start his presidency with low credibility and a lack of political capital to carry out his reforms, a first for a president under the Fifth Republic.

Romain Warnault is the associate director of publications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @romain_warnault.

Image: French presidential election candidates (LtoR) Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a debate organised by French private TV channel TF1 in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, France, March 20, 2017. (Reuters/Patrick Kovarik/Pool)