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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 22 August, 2019
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L'explainer: The candidates and issues in the French presidential election

France goes to the polls today in the first round of voting for the country’s next president. Can Nicolas Sarkozy secure a second term or will he be replaced in the Élysée? TheJournal.ie looks at the candidates and the issues…

From top left, Environmental candidate Eva Joly, far-right candidate Marine le Pen, conservative and current President Nicolas Sarkozy, leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, anti-capitalist candidate Philippe Poutou, Nathalie Artaud of the Workers' Struggle movement, independent Jacques Cheminade, centrist Francois Bayrou, Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande.

From top left, Environmental candidate Eva Joly, far-right candidate Marine le Pen, conservative and current President Nicolas Sarkozy, leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, anti-capitalist candidate Philippe Poutou, Nathalie Artaud of the Workers’ Struggle movement, independent Jacques Cheminade, centrist Francois Bayrou, Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande.

TODAY, FRANCE GOES to the polls to begin the process of selecting the country’s next president.

The first round of voting takes place today with a likely run-off needed that will mean another round of voting on 6 May before we know whether Nicolas Sarkozy retains the office he won in 2007 or there is a new man or woman in the Élysée Palace.

There are ten contenders in the race and broadcasting rules mean that all have been allowed to stake their claim for an equal amount of time but five main candidates have emerged.

Election law means all of the candidates had to stop their campaigns at 10pm on Friday but TheJournal.ie is not prevented from running the rule over them, the issues, the process and the likely outcome of the election.

So who is running?

Nicolas Sarkozy

The incumbent’s five years in power have largely disappointed many. Sarkozy’s private life has never been far from the limelight with his high-profile marriage to the former model Carla Bruni. In policy terms he has failed to achieve the substantial reforms he promised domestically bar the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 amid much protest in 2010.

Internationally, his tenure has been dominated by the eurozone crisis and his close relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel – the pair have been dubbed Merkozy – while the decision by S&P to downgrade France’s AAA rating in January was a big blow to his presidency and France’s economic credibility.

Sarkozy has campaigned on a message of being a strong leader to guide France through its current difficulties. He’s pledged to reduce immigration and tighten tax loopholes for big companies. Modest gains in the polls have have been wiped out by a series of embarrassing events including being booed at a public rally and a cynical attempt at boosting his popularity by allowing cameras to film a video link-up with US president Barack Obama:

YouTube: phrancque

Francois Hollande

The Socialist Party candidate is undoubtedly the favourite. The former partner of 2007 Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, Hollande is almost the antithesis to the more flashy Sarkozy. He portrays a modest image far removed from that of Sarkozy and indeed the man who was favourite to be the Socialists’ candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, before his much-publicised troubles with allegations over prostitution and sexual assault.

Hollande plans to impose a 75 per cent tax on France’s richest citizens if elected and set an annual quota on immigration after consulting with employers. Most drastically, from an international point of view, is his pledge to amend the EU fiscal compact (the one going to the people of Ireland at the end of May) in order to stimulate economic growth.

He has been the consistent favourite for months to succeed Sarkozy with some polls indicating he will win both the first and second round of voting but not everyone is happy with his candidacy, including this man who flour-bombed him at a rally in February:

YouTube: telegraphtv

Marine Le Pen

The candidate for the right-wing National Front party is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a controversial figure, who came second to former president Jacques Chirac in the 2002 presidential election, shocking France and much of Europe given his, at times, extreme views. He was trounced in the second round.

Le Pen junior is seen as having taken the party in a more moderate direction but she is nonetheless tough when talking about immigration and the so-called ‘Islamisation’ of France. She opposes France’s membership of the euro and advocates a protectionist policy.

Le Pen struggled initially to get on the ballot after a court ruled she had to disclose the names of the 500 elected officials she needed to back her candidacy but she eventually got the numbers. Polls consistently place her third which means both sides, but particularly Sarkozy are appealing for some of her voters going into the run-off. Hence a lot of talk about immigration in this poll (more of which below).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

A radical left-wing candidate who has shot up the polls in recent weeks. Mélenchon is likely to do well at the ballot box with his policies undoubtedly anti-capitalist and courting favour with the increasing number of people who have become disenchanted with the current political state of play in France.

A former minister in previous Socialist governments, Mélenchon has since defected to the radical left and advocates a 100 per cent tax on earnings over €260,000. He wants to reverse Sarkozy’s raising of the retirement age, introduce a 20 per cent increase in the minimum wage and nationalise energy companies. He advocates secularism, staying in the euro and says that immigration is “not a problem”.

His campaign has most obviously been notable for his sharp rise in the polls and the increasing numbers attending his public rallies. A pop video about a young girl’s crush on him has also gone viral in France with over a million hits. The campaign denies being behind it, the Guardian reports:

YouTube: Victoire Passage

Francois Bayrou

Considered to be the great centrist of French politics, Bayrou came to prominence in 2007 when he won nearly a fifth of the vote as a champion of the French regions and its agricultural sector, himself a great lover of horses. Though enjoying a high approval rating that doesn’t neccessarily translate into votes.

He is pro-European, and wants to recognise the achievements of immigrants. His economic policy broadly proposes €50 billion of cuts in the public sector and generating €50 billion of new revenue. He also wants to make primary schools devote half of their time to the French language.

His surprise showing in the 2007 election and good early performance in the polls this time around seemed to indicate he would enjoy a good election but he has almost disappeared from view in the face of the rise of Mélenchon whose more radical policies have found favour with many voters. Nonetheless, Bayrou is potentially the second round kingmaker if, as anticipated, it’s a battle between Sarkozy and Hollande where Bayrou’s backing for either could be crucial.

Anyone else?

Other candidates include the Green Eva Joly, who has an electoral pact with the Socialists, and will likely ask her voters to opt for Hollande in the second round. Then there is Nicolas Dupont Aignan who proposes lowering taxes and pulling out of Europe. Representing Workers’ Struggle is Nathalie Arthaud, then there is Philippe Poutou from the Anti-Capitalist Party and Jacques Cheminade representing Solidarity and Progress.

What’s the big issue of this campaign?

To coin an old Bill Clinton campaign phrase: it’s the economy, stupid… As the second largest economy in the eurozone and with some of the highest levels of public spending in western Europe, what happens in France is important to the entire economic region.

The generous and renowned social welfare system, one of the best healthcare systems in the world, unemployment of almost 10 per cent, and stalling growth that has led to fears that France is en-route to a level of unsustainable debt. It is those sort of fears that led to Standard & Poor’s historic decision to downgrade France’s AAA rating in January. It was sharply criticised but indicative of the malaise the country finds itself in and it makes candidates’ economic intentions all the more important.

But as the Guardian reported recently, the word austerity is taboo in France with the budget not being balanced since 1974 and none of the candidates going far enough to cut public spending in their manifestos, according to some analysts.

That said the frontrunners, Sarkozy and Hollande, have both pledged to balance the budget. Hollande, though, focuses more on growth than austerity hence his stance on the Fiscal Compact and pledge to makes changes to it.  This is in sharp contrast to Sarkozy, a champion of the stability pact.

The New York Times reports that investors are alarmed by what’s going on in France and see it increasingly mirroring the weak economies like Spain and Italy where previously it had been considered alongside the robust economies of Germany and Scandinavian countries. Around 60 per cent of people in France believe that the financial crisis is not over which underlines the extent to which the economy is all important in this election.

Anything else?

The thorny and emotive issue of immigration. As you no doubt may have gleaned from the candidate guides this is one of the central issues of the entire campaign. Though the country has had policies based on integration for several decades and is considered secularist, there has been sharp criticism from the increasingly disenchanted right, brought into focus even more in recent weeks following the shootings in the city of Toulouse.

Last month, four people were shot dead outside a Jewish school in the southern city. Though they were carried out by a Frenchman, Mohammed Merah, his Algerian origins have come under scrutiny.  ”How many Mohamed Merahs are on the boats and planes that arrive in France every day filled with immigrants?” asked Marine Le Pen recently, adding: “How many Merahs are among the immigrants’ children who don’t integrate?” she is quoted as saying by the Guardian.

President Sarkozy insisted that Islamic religions had nothing to do with Merah’s motivations but he is striking a hardline on immigration, recently saying that France has too many foreigners and pledging to halve the number of arrivals if re-elected. By contrast, his likely successor Hollande claims that he will discuss the matter with businesses before imposing any cap which would be adjusted annually.

So how does the public go about voting for one of these candidates?

No electoral college nonsense here, it’s all fairly simple. The first round of voting is today. Voters choose between the ten candidates, marking their preferred candidate on ballot card.

If neither candidates reaches 50 per cent in the first round of voting, as is likely, then we go to a second round of voting on 6 May where the top two candidates from the first round appear on the ballot paper and voters mark their preferred one of the two. Whoever gets the most votes is the winner. Simples.

Exit polling means expected results will become clear almost as soon as the polls close at 8pm on Sunday (7pm Irish Time) and then again on Sunday, 6 May.

So who is going to win?

There is now a strong likelihood that Francois Hollande will be the next president of France. Prior to the campaign all polls indicated he would win and since it has got underway, Sarkozy has made only modest gains. A poll earlier this week predicted a dead heat between Sarkozy and Hollande at the end of the first round.

But for months, all polls have indicated that while the incumbent might even win the first round of voting he would be beaten in round two with much of the considerable support for Mélenchon transferring to Hollande. A defeat for Sarkozy would mark the first time an incumbent has lost the presidency since 1981 when Valery Giscard d’Estaing gave way to Socialist Francois Mitterand

Add to that, the news this week that former centre-right president Jacques Chirac indicated he would vote for Francois Hollande and not his party colleague Sarkozy, with whom he has had a testy relationshop with in recent years, and there is an increasing feeling that the Sarkozy era at the Élysée Palce is at an end.

Read: French presidential candidates make final push for votes

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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