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Explainer: Everything you need to know about the French presidential election

The world is watching for the next Brexit or Trump, but will it happen?

France Election Supporters of Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Source: Michel Euler/PA Images

THERE’S THREE MONTHS before the most closely watched French presidential election in recent years and the country’s political rulebook has already been torn up.

Given the obvious Trump/Brexit parallels, much of the global media attention has focused on Marine Le Pen but the unlikely victory for the National Front candidate would be a product of a number of important subplots.

The distrust of traditional politics. Growing euroscepticism. France’s ongoing security threats. The failure of Francois Hollande. And good old-fashioned political sleaze.

The first votes won’t be cast in anger for another ten weeks but here’s how things are shaping up so far.

Source: BBC Newsnight/YouTube

How it works

Unlike the electoral college system that’s so familiar to followers of US politics, France’s president is directly elected by voters.

The candidate with over 50% of the popular vote is elected as president, but it usually takes two votes for this to happen.

The wider field is put to the electorate in the first round and if no candidate secures a majority then there’s a runoff election between the top two candidates.

It means that voters who selected a candidate in the first round who didn’t make the final cut have to decide whether to cast their vote for another candidate in the runoff.

In general terms it means that divisive candidates, such as Le Pen, may find it difficult to be elected as a consensus candidate.

Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the run-off stage in 2002 after squeaking into second place before being soundly beaten by a returning Jacques Chirac.

In 2012, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande beat incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) in a much tighter vote.

An unhappy five years, however, means Hollande has seen the writing on the wall and will not be standing for re-election.

The first vote will be held on 23 April and the runoff will be on 7 May, both Sundays as is tradition in France.

So who is in the running?

François Fillon (Les Républicains)

France Fillon Source: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

The conservative candidate Francois Fillon served as prime minister during Sarkozy’s term as French president and until a recent scandal was seen as the favourite to win.

His party is the long-time standard-bearer of conservatism in France and it changed its name from the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) to The Republicans in 2015.

Fillon was the surprise choice by his party late last year after he beat tough competition that included an unsuccessful return bid by Sarkozy.

Many of his policies were seen as further right than the centre-right norm of the Republicans and perhaps reflected the growing influence of Le Pen on French politics.

Among the policies that saw Fillon win his party primary were promises to cut 500,000 public sector jobs and to reduce immigration to a “strict minimum”.

He also proposed to link development aid in Africa to commitments by countries to take back illegal immigrants.

Fillon’s campaign had been progressing smoothly until it was rocked by scandal.

The torrent of bad press includes allegations that his wife Penelope was employed in a “fake job” as parliamentary assistant for which she was paid up to €800,000 over 15 years.

Media investigations probing the possible misuse of public funds were unable to find any evidence that Penelope did any official work with Fillon himself admitting he had made an “error”.

In a landscape so sceptical of politicians, the scandal has seen Fillon plunge in polls to a point where, on current figures,[ he would miss the run off vote.

Marine Le Pen (Front National)

APT0PIX France Election Far-right leader presidential candidate Marine Le Pen launches her campaign in Lyon. Source: Michel Euler/AP

After inheriting the leadership of the far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen has spent years tempering the party’s image to the point where she is now perhaps at the cusp of electability.

In the crowded field that’s not yet been finalised, Le Pen currently leads in the polls with around 26% of people saying they support her.

Further polls indicate that should she progress to the run-off vote, she would likely be defeated by either of her two other main challenges.

But in age where relying on polls has proven to be folly, there’s a noticeable reluctance to make such predictions. One major French newspaper has even pledged not to publish polling in the run up to the elections.

Long associated with staunch nationalism and stoking fears about immigration, Le Pen has broadened the National Front’s platform of late to more closely embrace the populist economic policies that brought electoral success in Britain and the US.

Launching her campaign in Lyon last week, Le Pen praised Britain for choosing to leave the EU and urged the French to emulate Trump voters “who put their own national interests first”.

Le Pen compared globalisation to slavery, saying it meant “manufacturing with slaves to sell to the unemployed”.

Source: Al Jazeera English/YouTube

Her speech also fed the distrust of traditional politics and further hailed Trump’s win as a victory won “in the face of a system ranged against them”.

Speaking in the city where she once compared the sight of Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation, Le Pen said:

“We do not want to live under the tyranny of fundamentalism.”

“We will not expect the French people to get used to living with terrorism,” she added, promising a massive increase in spending on law and order.

But despite the similar rhetoric and all the comparisons with Trump, Le Pen is far from the outsider in the way that the US President was.

Whereas Trump had never run for political office before, Le Pen and the National Front have done so for over 30 years without making the major breakthrough. Le Pen even has her own issues with the alleged improper use of public money to deal with.

Two years ago in regional elections the National Front saw a surge in early support before voters from across the board united to oppose them.

It remains to be seen whether voters are ready to see the party and Le Pen as anything more than fleeting protest.

Emmanuel Macron (En Marche)

France Election Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron also launched his campaign in Lyon. Source: Michel Euler/PA Images

Someone else who’s hoping to win the presidency from outside the main two parties is youthful former senior civil servant and Socialist Party defector Emmanuel Macron.

Macron was a part of Hollande’s government before he resigned last year to pursue his own ambitions through his En Marche (On the Move) movement.

A liberal who was firmly on the business friendly side of the Socialist Party, Macron has styled himself as a political centrist and is attempting to win votes from progressives on both the left and the right.

Essentially, winning votes from both parties without having the baggage of a party himself.

His chances have been boosted recently both by Fillon’s troubles and after the socialists chose radical left-winger Benoit Hamon as their party’s candidate.

Macron supporters see him as a sorely needed fresh face in a campaign but his detractors point out that he has never held elected office and his campaign pledges are short on detail.

Nevertheless, his socially liberal and pro-business policies have seen people flock to see him with a reported 16,000 at his recent campaign launch.

Source: euronews (in English)/YouTube

His personal life has also been the source the kind of curiosity that often goes with being the French premier.

The 39-year-old is married to his former English teacher Brigitte Trogneux who is 24 years older than him.

The unconventional relationship is often featured in the country’s celebrity magazines but it hasn’t stopped online rumours suggesting the relationship is a cover.

Speaking at a meeting in Paris, Macron drew laughter by referring to speculation that he was in a relationship with the man who runs state-run Radio France:

If over dinners in the city, if on forwarded emails, you’re told that I have a double life with Mathieu Gallet or anyone else, it’s my hologram that suddenly escaped, but it can’t be me.

As it stands in polling with around 22% support, Macron is the favourite to win the presidency outright.

His support puts him just below Le Pen and in a strong position should the pair go head-to-head in May.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2017

Read: Explosion at French nuclear plant causes injuries but no ‘radiation risk’ >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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