French Presidential Election: First Round.

Election fever is in the air – and I am not talking about Northern Ireland, or the UK. I am focusing on France, the citizens of which will take to the polls sooner than June.

This Sunday, France will vote  in the first round of a closely contested Presidential election. After a dramatic campaign, four candidates in particular are all in with a chance of making the top two, and qualifying for the decisive second round on the 7th May. The Presidential election will be followed by a legislative election to elect members of the National Assembly on 11th and 18th June (so France will also engage in more election fever in June. ‘Tis the season…)

Fun fact, part one: Incumbent president François Hollande of the Socialist Party was eligible to run for a second term, but declared in December 2016 he would not be seeking re-election in light of low approval ratings, making him the first incumbent President of the Fifth Republic not to seek re-election.

Fun fact, part two: This is the first French Presidential election in which nominees of both the main centre-left and centre-right parties were selected through open primaries.

‘Closely-contested’ in one way to describe the situation at hand. According to one of the final published polls from this week, just 72 percent of the electorate said they will cast their vote, meaning there are millions of French voters still undecided or planning to abstain.

You see, there is a crammed field, with some real characters in the mix. Moreover, the campaigning and voting is occurring against a heightened backdrop. This is an election held in a country which has endured numerous terrorist attacks (the most recent occurred just this week), is contemplating its own identity, is worried about its position in Europe and internationally, and finds itself at a political crossroads, requiring strong leadership in turbulent times.

There are five key candidates to consider and follow in tomorrow’s first round. Here’s how they got to where they are.

François Fillon of the Republicans, the victor of his party’s first ever open primary, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front had led the first-round opinion polls in November 2016 and mid-January 2017. However, the polls tightened considerably by late January, and after the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné published revelations that Fillon possibly employed family members in fictitious jobs as parliamentary assistants, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (a party he formed barely a year ago) overtook Fillon to place consistently second in first-round polling. At the same time, Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party won the party’s primary, entering fourth place in the polls. Yet, after strong debate performances, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Unsubmissive France began to rise significantly in polls in late March, overtaking Hamon to place just below Fillon. Polls for the expected second round of voting further suggest that Fillon, Macron or Mélenchon would beat Le Pen, that Macron or Mélenchon would defeat Fillon, and that Macron would beat Mélenchon.

A reminder about the ‘main five’:

Fillon led a prolific political career starting from the early 1970s, and was Prime Minister from 2007-2012. The surprise winner of the primary of the right – the favourite, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, failed to even make the second round – is pushing liberal economic programme ending the 35-hour workweek in favour of a 48-hour workweek, dismissing 500,000 civil servants, abolishing the wealth tax, streamlining the labour code, and reforming the health insurance system. After the emergence of allegations of fictitious employment of family members, he initially said he would drop his bid if placed under formal investigation. He however continued his candidacy after such investigations began on 15th March.

This isn’t the first Presidential election for Len Pen. She stood in the 2012 Presidential election, and came in third with 17.90% of first-round votes. She rose within the ranks of the National Front, founded and once led by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, culminating in a bitter leadership struggle which she won in 2011. Her campaign programme prioritises the national interests of France and exit from the Eurozone, and emphasises her party’s traditional concern about security and immigration. She also focuses on socioeconomic issues and the sovereignty of the French state, on matters of currency, borders, the economy, and the rule of law.

Macron is the youngest candidate in the race, and is a former economy minister who has never run for elected office. He describes himself as “neither of the right nor the left”. He was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the Élysée in 2012, and became Economy Minister in 2014, lending his name to the ‘Macron law’ to promote economic growth and opportunities. He founded the En Marche! movement in April 2016 before resigning from the Cabinet on 30 August. The most explicitly pro-European of the candidates, Macron intends to implement reforms to modernise the French economy.

Hamon, a left-wing critic of current President Hollande’s government, was the surprise winner of the Socialist primary in January 2017, which saw him roundly defeat former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Hamon’s primary victory was driven in part by his support for a universal basic income.He negotiated the withdrawal and support of Yannick Jadot of Europe Ecology – The Greens in February, becoming the joint candidate of both parties. He also advocates for the legalization of cannabis, and reforming the structure of government to a Sixth Republic.

Denouncing the “liberal drift” of the party, Mélenchon left the Socialist Party in 2008 to found the Left Party. Like Le Pen, he also attempted a previous run in 2012, coming in fourth with 11.10% of votes, with the backing of the French Communist Party. However this time around, the fierce critic of the Hollande government launched his 2017 bid without consulting the Communist Party, instead choosing to found his own movement, Unsubmissive France.  He did win the Communist Party’s support, albeit by a narrow margin.  His programme underlines left-wing and environmental principles, including the establishment of a Sixth Republic, redistribution of wealth, renegotiating EU treaties, environmental planning, and protecting the independence of France, namely from the United States.

Phew. Are you still with me? Good.

The President is elected to a five-year term in a two-round election under Article 7 of the Constitution of France. Should no candidate secure an absolute majority of votes in the first round, a second round is held two weeks later between the two candidates who received the most votes. Based on both current polling and tradition, it seems likely this shall be the scenario upon the conclusion of the counting of tomorrow’s votes.

The official campaign began on the 10th April and ended at midnight on the 21st April. From midnight, neither candidates nor French media outlets were allowed to discuss the election. This is a long-standing tradition, which sees France’s Constitutional Council imposing a strict ban on election coverage to protect ‘the sincerity’ of the vote. Large French television outlets will commence posting exit polls an hour or so after the polls close; this will be around 7pm for most areas apart from the larger cities, where polls will close around 8pm.

Tomorrow, voting will commence at 8am, and some 47 million people are eligible to vote. Turnout figures will be released at noon and at 5 pm. At the last Presidential election in 2012, turnout was 79.5% in the first round. Pollsters expect a lower figure on Sunday. If it is substantially down, it could be good news for Le Pen as more of her supporters are determined to turn out. She will be looking to repeat history: in 2002, her father pulled off a huge upset in the first round, when turnout was 72%, to come second, and qualify for the runoff.

Once exit polls have been published, and the results start to become clear, expect the candidates to start giving statements. If, as expected, we will see no candidate emerge with an overall majority win, we will proceed to a second round. That means nine of the eleven candidates will see their candidacy stop after tomorrow. They will, however, have a role to play still by telling their supporters who to support in the second round. And the question becomes this: if Le Pen reaches the second round, will any of the nine aim to rally around her opponent, or will they suggest abstaining from voting?

Regarding the two surviving candidates: immediately, the second round starts. They will have to determine whether to change their talking points to appeal to new voters, or emphasis the same points.

French polls are traditionally topsy-turvy at best, and if the past few years have taught us anything, it is that polls in general are notoriously unreliable (see: UK General Election 2015, UK EU Referendum 2016, US Presidential Election 2016). Speculation abounds, but with tomorrow’s outcome, all we can really do is wait and see.

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