This Sunday, French citizens are planning to vote in the first round of presidential elections. Eleven contenders are competing for the top two positions that will gain them a spot in the second and final round. Polls in recent months have echoed the fluctuating popularity of the nation’s many candidates. In the last week, however, the numbers have settled down, and four frontrunners are showing a decisive lead over the rest of the field. From left to right (politically speaking) they are Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon, and Marine Le Pen. As of the time of this post, the results from a leading poll indicate Macron leading with 24%, followed by Le Pen with 22.5%, Fillon with 19.5%, and Mélenchon with 18.5%.
By far the youngest of the candidates, Macron has seen a quick rise to prominence. Many consider him to be the deepest thinker on the ballot. He was previously a highly successful investment banker before becoming Minister of the Economy under the current president, François Hollande. While Macron is favored to win, he only leads by a small margin. A centrist, Macron takes some positions that are right of center and others that are left. In interviews, his answers are often nuanced. His detractors denounce his program as vague and overly accommodating, while his supporters feel that the complexity of today’s issues requires a broad approach with room to adjust.
A globalist, Macron’s vision is inextricably tied to the European Union. When asked pointed questions about his plans for strengthening France, he often responds with answers that blend France’s cultural identity with Europe’s, rather than reinforcing traditional structures and nationalistic distinctions. Not surprisingly, Putin sees Macron as an enemy and Macron’s campaign has been targeted by Russian hackers and fake news organizations. Despite nefarious attempts to discredit him, the 39-year old political newcomer has avoided any hints of scandal.
This is not to suggest, however, that the gossip columns have not had their fair share of chatter, regarding Macron’s marriage to Bridgitte Trogneux, 24 years his senior. The couple met when Macron was 15 and Trogneux was his high school teacher. Nicknamed “chouchou”, or teacher’s pet, Macron appears to have faithfully stayed by Trogneux’s side since the age of 18. He acknowledges that their relationship is unusual, but by all appearances, it seems extraordinarily strong. Considering France’s general lack of concern for unconventional partnerships, (the last two presidents have each had three significant others), Macron’s atypical personal life is unlikely to be a consideration in the minds of most voters.
Currently running in 4th place is the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon launched his campaign last February, creating a new political party to promote his platform: La France insoumise, translated Unsubmissive France. Chief among Mélenchon’s proposals is a measure to ditch the current constitution (la Ve République), established by Charles de Gaulle after WWII. Supporters of this idea view the current government as a sort of “presidential monarchy”, where the president has too much power. Mélenchon vows to return power into the hands of the people, enacting many institutional changes, and giving citizens the right to recall elected officials if they break campaign promises. Right-wing opponents consider his ideas radical, nicknaming him “Chavez français”, the French Chavez.
Back in February, Mélenchan was in 5th place, trailing the socialist party candidate, Benoit Hamon, by a substantial margin. Throughout March and April, his numbers have steadily increased, perhaps due to his tactic of simultaneously appearing in 6 or 7 cities throughout the country. That’s right, Mélenchon has cloned himself, using holograms to deliver important speeches. On Wednesday, his ghostly surrogates attracted around 35,000 spectators in 6 different cities, while Mélenchon, in the flesh, appeared in Dijon.
Appealing to young voters, Mélenchon has used several other new technologies and media formats to self-promote. Like all candidates, he maintains a presence on all major social networking sites and produces a blog and vlog. The latter has earned him more youtube subscribers than anyone else in the race. Mélenchon is the central hero of a manga comic book. He even has his own video game, called Kombat Fiscal, named after the popular 90’s game Mortal Combat. In this version, the hero who resembles a Minecraft version of Mélenchon, roams city streets, seeking figures such as Christine Lagarde (head of the International Monetary Fund) and Nicolas Sarkozy (former conservative French president). Upon catching them, he shakes them down, retrieving funds from foreign bank accounts, lost tax revenue, and offshore investments. The game ends when Mélenchon has collected 279 billion euros, the equivalent of the candidate’s proposed budget.
Four frontrunners fight to the finish
I have previously written about François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. Le Pen, the far-right candidate who would love to see France withdraw from the EU (Frexit), still has a strong shot at making it past the first round. Fillon’s chances have steadily improved in recent weeks. As a long time member of parliament and former prime minister, Fillon has the most experience. Concern over payments he made to family members, using state funds, have dwindled. Many members of parliament do exactly the same thing with impunity.
In the final analysis, poll margins between the candidates are relatively tight. It appears that any two of the four could make it into round two. After all, we have Brexit and the U.S. presidential election illustrating that polls are far from infallible. Complicating matters is the double-round format. I talked to a friend who expects Macron to handily enter round two. He plans to vote for Macron at that time. In the first round, however, he is considering voting for Fillon, his second choice. Since he’d like to see Macron and Fillon beat out both Le Pen and Mélenchon, he figures that, at this point, Fillon needs his vote more than Macron does. The added layer of jockeying is enough to make an analyst’s head spin.
The polls are set to close at 7:00 pm, Paris time. In recent history, France has never had an election that was too close to call within a few hours. However, there has also never been a race this close with four frontrunners. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping we know the results here in the U.S. before we go to bed. Bonne chance!