What to expect from the Presidential elections in France (Part 1)On April 23, the French voters will cast their ballots in the first round of what might turn out to be the most unpredictable and fateful presidential elections in the history of the Fifth Republic. The failure of the François Hollande presidency combined with the sluggish economy and deepening woes over the issues of identity and security have polarized the society and made the contest much more fierce and volatile than usual. As the confidence of the liberal world is quite shattered after such 2016 events as Brexit and Trump’s victory in the U.S. (the authoritarian course of the Turkish President Erdogan also fits this pattern), the upcoming elections in the 6th economy of the world and one of the two backbone EU members (along with Germany) may either signal the reversal of this trend or alternatively, plunge the West into even more uncertain waters.

The recent months preceding the elections have seen a fair share of twists and turns. First of all, the electoral landscape was shaped by President Hollande’s unprecedented decision not to stand for re-election due to his very low support rates. This move initiated an intra-party primary election process where the favourite of the race, ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls was surprisingly defeated by the less known Benoit Hamon who became the Socialist Party candidate. No less surprising were the outcomes of the primaries in the right-wing Republican Party (UMP) where former President Nicola Sarkozy and veteran Alain Juppe were beaten by another ex-Prime Minister François Fillon. The latter jumped quickly to the top of the race and by the end of the last year was recognized as the most probable future president; however, allegations of him employing his wife and daughter at no-show jobs paid from the budget made a huge blow to his reputation. While the potential major rival, the leader of the far-right Front National Marine Le Pen rejoiced at this, her triumph did not last; a maverick candidate, 39 year-old Emmanuel Macron whose only experience at important political positions consisted of a 2-year stint as Minister of Economy in the Walls government, emerged as if out of nowhere to become the frontrunner. A former socialist, Macron had always leaned to centrist, rather liberal views and ultimately left the party to establish a rather loose political movement named En Marche. On the polar sides of the political spectrum, Fillon and Macron are rivalled by the above-mentioned Le Pen, who is running her second campaign, and a radical left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who during the last month has completely overrun the socialist candidate Mr. Hamon and suddenly emerged as a real political force. Currently, opinion polls suggest that Le Pen and Macron are going to get almost equal shares of vote in the first round (about 23-25 % each), while support for Fillon and Melenchon lingers at the level of 19-20% each. 

The three most important issues on the candidates’ political agendas are economic reforms, immigration and security issues and France’s position in the EU. Emmanuel Macron, a representative of a centrist spirit often compared to Giscard d’Estaing, is rather liberal from economic and social points of view but is against radical measures, proposing to make fiscal policies and employment procedures more flexible; he is a staunch supporter of common Europe and specifically, the responsibility born by France for moving it forward. Macron is also quite at ease with immigration and sees it indispensable for France’s sustainable development. On the contrary, Fillon is much further to the right, his ideas often compared to Thatcherism: he promised to introduce longer working hours and significantly cut public spending (measures that can hardly be very popular in France). Being a devout Christian, Fillon will likely pursue a more conservative social agenda, too. He wants to cut immigration “as much as possible” and expresses his concern with the rise of radical Islam. In one of his recent speeches, Fillon claimed that liberal candidates (like Macron and Hamon) nurture “the culture of fear” of speaking openly of the social ills, hinting at immigration and related concerns with terrorism and crime. He is consequently a Eurosceptic who seeks for returning to Charles de Gaulle’s “Europe of nations”, with more sovereign control over the border and some protective measures implemented. He is however far from Le Pen who says that in case she’s elected president, she would conduct an EU membership referendum- and given the current mood, the chances for a leave vote will be quite high. Overall, FN is pursuing a populist agenda, though less toxic than under the current candidate’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen: they combine anti-immigration and Islamophobic views (capping immigration at 10,000 people per year and banning religious symbols from all public places) with a leftish social program that envisages a lot of spending to the destitute and depressive regions and agrees on a higher budget deficit. At the same time, the left-populist programme of Melenchon, a man who has set a storm to the presidential campaign throughout the last month with his popular appeal and a tradition of broadcasting his speeches via full-scale hologrammatic images across France, promises to impose a 90-percent income tax on the top 0.05% rich, introduce a wage cap for the CEOs and reinvigorate social support programs while demonstrating ambiguous attitudes to immigration: while is not hostile per se, he emphasizes his preference for “engineers” (or high-skilled labour) to enter France. On the foreign policy, the only candidate who favours status-quo is Macron; the three other candidates are keen to lift sanctions on Russia, which would undermine the consolidated Western stance on this problem, while Melenchon and Le Pen say they would withdraw from NATO if they are elected. Le Pen feels definitely bolstered by the success of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign and emphasizes that these choices made by American and British peoples should inspire the French to make a similar choice, too.


So, who is likely to be the President?

The structure of the French elections makes predictions a rather difficult job. As it was mentioned earlier, the most likely outcome of the first round would be Macron and Le Pen coming at the top and making it into the second round that is to be held 2 weeks later, on May 7. However, an average poll error margin of 2% means that the success of Fillon or Melenchon is not that improbable. About a third of the electorate is still undecided on their vote, while multiple-issue voting and overlapping on certain dimensions between seemingly very different candidates make it hard to guess whom these people may choose and, most importantly, whom they will be more likely to endorse in the second round. Further, we will try to briefly discuss the factors that may help or undermine each candidate’s chances. 


Why Macron?

What to expect from the Presidential elections in France (Part 1)Emmanuel Macron has long remained the unexpected frontrunner in the presidential race. His centrist position and the relative independence from the French political establishment (which is very important in the country where corruption scandals have turned into a sad but common feature of each campaign) make him an at least acceptable figure for the majority of the population, except some staunch leftists and convicted nationalists and Eurosceptics who hardly amount to more than 30-35% of the electorate. That said, although a moderate liberal Macron can be compared to, say, Hillary Clinton, he can hardly suffer from protest voting in the way she did. Some politicians with a certain base of support, such as Manuel Valls and the presidential campaigns veteran centrist François Bayrou have already endorsed Macron. That’s why polls show that in case of a second-round standoff with any other candidate his victory by quite a wide margin (approximately 60 to 40%) will be the most likely outcome. The history tells us that centrist candidates usually benefit from large turnouts: for example, Giscard d’Estaing got elected in 1974 in the second round despite falling almost 10% behind from the Socialist candidate Mitterrand in the first one, in the elections characterized by a very high participation rate. As the party primaries and the polls suggest, this campaign is likely to produce high turnouts, too.

However, the same factors that guarantee the frontrunner status for Macron, may actually play against him in the first round where voters usually pick the candidate they like most. Bearing this mind, it is a real scenario when Macron doesn’t come among the top two. Moreover, as a newcomer without a strong, rooted political party he doesn’t have a significant loyal base, i.e. people who would turn up to support him under any circumstances. Some surveys shows that there is a strong tendency among the   Melenchon electorate (not a meek figure in the end) who mistrust Macron, “a man who left the Socialist Party to work for Rotchilds”, as Melenchon dubbed him, to ignore the second round in case their candidate doesn’t qualify for it. Though tactical voting “for the least evil” is a common thing in France, it is a fact that Mme Le Pen does not provoke the kind of revulsion her father did among the majority of the French: some of the discontent may choose abstention over voting for Macron. 


Why Le Pen?

What to expect from the Presidential elections in France (Part 1)In certain ways, Le Pen represents a stark contrast to Macron. She has been building up her electorate for years and is not shy on making openly divisive statements and calling for radical measures, often unacceptable for liberal-minded people. Riding on the wave of a growing disillusionment with conventional politics that is often blamed for economic inefficiencies and “destruction of the French sociocultural identity”, as the FN supporters call large immigration, first of all of the people with Muslim and African backgrounds, she has managed to expand her following steadily, from 10.4% at the 2007 elections to 17.9% in 2012 and to the triumph at the 2015 regional elections where her party gained the largest number of votes (27.7%) in the first round. So she has certain momentum and a fleur of a steadily rising figure. The financial allegations made against Le Pen by the EU did not shake her popularity much, her approval forecast remaining around 25% which means that she will almost certainly qualify for the decisive 7 May battle. And it has been often suggested that many people planning to vote for the FN candidates feel unease disclosing it to opinion polls, so her real support is underestimated.

On the other hand, despite the fact that FN now is less toxic than it used to be under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, it is still a ”no-go” for liberal- and left-minded people. In the hypothetical 2nd round, Mme Le Pen will struggle to get significantly more than 40% of the vote as predicted by the polls; so she will have to hope on low turnout rates within the ranks of her rivals. These polls predict her to be an outsider in a one-to-one clash with any of the three; Macron is more broadly approved, Fillon may pull to his side more moderate voters who are just worried about immigration and taking right counterterror measures, while Melenchon offers an even more tempting redistribution programme and is popular with traditionally active youth. Her open links with Russia, especially the fact her campaign has been sponsored to a significant extent with the help of credits taken in Russia-related banks, do not add her popularity among the neutral public neither. The spillover effects of Trump’s victory may have been considerable a few months earlier, but know when the new President seems to have compromised on most controversial aspects of his programme and seems to be effectively constrained by the US checks and balances system, voters may be rather skeptical about Le Pen’s readiness to fulfill her electoral promises. Finally, she holds no chance to get votes from ethnic minorities which, all things equal, may play a decisive role.  


Why Fillon?

What to expect from the Presidential elections in France (Part 1)François Fillon, a candidate of the Gaullist Republican Party, seems to be an embodiment of old-world French politics, with his emphasis on work, Christian values and social solidarity. Until the employment scandal, he had been a clear leader of the presidential race, and though his popularity then dropped very sharply, he managed to consolidate his support that has risen from 15% to about 19-20%. It is a positive sign for him, as well as an assumption that a candidate with a bit shattered reputation may actually get more votes in the end than suggested by social surveys. Fillon is an obvious choice for those nostalgic for the great days of the French Republic: unlike the rather isolationist Le Pen, he will be an active promoter of a greater global role for France, less constrained by global institutions and free to pursue its interests but remaining the part of the large West. Support for Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Fillon has recently voiced is a sign that he would pursue a traditional conservative policy of supporting Christians in the Middle East. He is also a first choice for liberals who may perceive Macron as someone incapable of radical reform- Fillon is known as a Thatcherite and he has repeatedly emphasized that bolstering economic efficiency would be his foremost priority in the Palais d’Elysee.

The major drawback in the Fillon’s campaign is quite obvious- it is the accusations put against him. The unwillingness to have a president under investigation can revert many people from supporting Fillon. Moreover, no one in the history of the 5th Republic has implemented a program as consistently rightwing as he proposes, and Fillon, with all his merits, risks looking rather detached from the general public in France which has always leaned to the left. His plans to curb dramatically the powers and privileges of the traditionally strong trade unions may hurt him. Hence, though polls predict him- in case of a second round- a narrow victory over Le Pen but losses against the two other candidates, he remains a rather enigmatic figure, so standoffs with him in the game may go both ways.


Why Melenchon?

What to expect from the Presidential elections in France (Part 1)The most surprising participant of the presidential race and the leader of a loose “Unsubmitting France” coalition of the left, Melenchon is a stark representative of the Jacobine, radical left tradition of the French politics. By combining a strongly anti-establishment agenda with a very exuberant сampaigning style that invoked the memories of the 1930s Fronte Populaire and was full of references to the French culture and history, he doubled his following in a timespan of a single month. Moreover, he- unlike Le Pen- established a very positive reputation outside of his immediate circle, his approval rating being significantly higher than 50%. Then it’s unsurprising that he is supposed to win against Le Pen or Fillon (though rather narrowly), though losing to Macron. His possible standoff with the FN leader, a complete nightmare for markets and political community alike, could feature two leaders both of whom emphasize the interests of common people, and though they hold very different positions on the issues of security- Melenchon called her campaign “a machine of hatred” - they both claim their utmost commitment to secularism which has come to be a defining feature of the French republican DNA. 

However, there are concerns about the Melenchon support figures being a bit deceptive. In fact, the largest group of hesitating voters (42%) is found among the alleged Melenchon electorate. His vociferous campaign may have touched upon the hearts of many people, but, given the rather volatile nature of the French voter, there is no guarantee that many of those who supported him in the polls would reconsider their opinion on the election day, given how radical some of his policy proposals are. The support collected in a very short amount of time might evaporate with the same speed. It is even more probable if he advances to the second round, where the immediate perspective of a Communist running the Fifth Republic may produce sobering effects on moderate voters. The political experience of Melenchon also suggests that his actual electoral outcomes tend to be more modest than those expected during the campaign period. 



There is no need to doubt that the second round with Macron against Le Pen with the victory of the former, more or less secure, remains the most likely outcome of the upcoming election. However, given the volatile nature of the French politics as well as the peculiarities of the current campaign and the overall anti-establishment mood in the West, alternative options should be considered, too. It is not to be forgotten that even in case Macron ultimately wins but Le Pen or Melenchon impose a fierce contest, it may have ramifications for the Parliamentary elections that will be held only a couple of months later and which provide a relatively better chance for the fringe political groups to gain considerable ground. Hence, the new president will in any case have to function in a rather complicated environment and take into account the growing influence of such groups.