Explained: The French Presidential Race That Will Determine the Fate of Europe

Four candidates go into Sunday’s election with a chance of making it. From the far-right Marine Le Pen to the far-left Jean-Luc Melénchon - here’s everything you need to know

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A man studying campaign posters of the 11 candidates running in the 2017 French presidential election, April 19, 2017.
A man studying campaign posters of the 11 candidates running in the 2017 French presidential election, April 19, 2017. Credit: CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon

PARIS – The French presidential election will determine the fate not just of the French Fifth Republic, but also to a great extent that of Europe. The first round of the election will be held this Sunday, and it is the closest presidential election in French history.

The four leading candidates – Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melénchon, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen – are all considered to have an equal chance of making it to the runoff on Sunday May 7 (if we factor in the polls’ margin of error).

Two of the candidates have openly stated that if they are elected president, they will change the form of government. One wants to leave the European Union in stages; one wants to leave the euro currency bloc immediately; and three admit that if they are elected, France and Europe will both suffer a kind of “shock therapy” initially.

French election: The latest pollCredit: Infographic by Haaretz

The latest polls show Macron, the independent centrist candidate, in the lead with 23 percent; Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is second with 21 percent; Melénchon, the far left candidate, is third with 20 percent; and Fillon, the traditional, right-wing Republican Party candidate, is fourth with 18 percent.

All four know that at this late stage, any mistake they make will prove unforgiveable with voters, and any outside event could ruin their best-laid plans. Each one of them is convinced the dynamics of the final few days will work in their favor – at least two of them are wrong.

Achievements to date

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen at a rally in Marseille, southern France, April 19, 2017.Credit: Michel Euler/AP

Macron: Without a party of his own or significant political experience, he has survived two attempted political “assassinations”: the publication by a Russian website of a forged document about his connections with the Rothschild Bank; and rumors that he is gay.

Le Pen: Many people in her own party think she ran a catastrophic campaign, yet she has maintained her place in the polls. She also obtained the support of her father and the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and in doing so prevented a family feud.

Melénchon: After a long and strife-ridden political career, he has managed to persuade millions of voters, mostly young people, that he represents the change they are hoping for. He has positioned himself as a realistic candidate without obscuring his radicalness.

Fillon: He also survived an attempted political “assassination,” though no politician could have emerged from it completely unscathed. He turned attacks on him to his political advantage by taking Le Pen’s place as the chief victim of the media, legal elite and National Assembly.

A supporter of French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, sticks a campaign poster in Bayonne, southwestern France, April 19, 2017.Credit: Bob Edme/AP

Strategy for the final days

Macron: Will appear at over 100 campaign rallies throughout France in the final days of the campaign with a simple message: I’m the only candidate whose election can prevent utter chaos.

Le Pen: Has resumed focusing on immigration as an existential threat to France, and tried to claim that the arrest of two suspected terrorists in Marseille on Tuesday was part of a conspiracy to silence her. She preferred to run a low-key campaign since Fillon was chosen as the right-wing Republican candidate, planning instead on a last-minute spurt.

Melénchon: Plans to steal the antiestablishment voters from Le Pen and the leftist voters from Macron, who are scared by his courtship of the right. He will appear at seven or eight campaign rallies across France every day, with the help of a special hologram developed especially for him, and will continue with his antiestablishment platform until the very last minute.

Fillon: Will aim to look presidential and focus on security issues. He can then ignore what critics describe as the horrendous weakness of his economic platform and Macron’s clear advantage over him in this regard.

Republican Party candidate François Fillon during a campaign rally in Lille, northern France, April 18, 2017.Credit: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS

Expected focus in the final days

Macron: Will continue to focus on economics, with most of his appearances in the final week of the campaign in factories and other workplaces. He will repeat his economic proposals: Canceling local property taxes for some 80 percent of households; replacing the wealth tax with a real estate tax; reducing corporate taxes; sharply reducing unemployment benefits; raising the retirement age to 67; limiting the power of Big Pharma; increasing the defense budget; and expanding the authority of the EU in economic affairs.

Le Pen: Will speak at length on three key issues: Arabs, Arabs and Arabs.

Melénchon: Will leverage his momentum to persuade the Socialist Party’s strong base – first of all the teachers – to support him and abandon plans to vote for their preferred candidate, Benot Hamon, who has no realistic chance of winning.

Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist candidate, during a rally near Nantes, western France, April 19, 2017.Credit: STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Fillon: Will exploit the arrest of the suspected terrorists in Marseille to expand on his security plans, including hiring more police, building more prisons, increasing the defense budget and lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

Mistakes so far

Macron: Took the lead too early in the campaign and fears being punished by voters who prefer the underdog. He is not identified with any clear positions outside the realm of economics, and has courted right-wing voters disappointed by Fillon.

Le Pen: Lost her status as a victim of the system and the media to Fillon, and her status as the antiestablishment candidate to Melénchon. Also, she has not been able to attack Macron in the same way she planned to attack François Hollande.

Melénchon: Revealed the bizarre nature of his political platform this week when he announced his intention to abandon NATO in favor of the Bolivarian Alliance (aka ALBA) – a political and military alliance with the likes of Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba and Iran, under Russian auspices.

Fillon: Thought he could deny and/or respond to well-grounded suspicions and allegations against him. But over the last week, he’s changed his tactics with much success and may still have enough time to stage a surprise comeback.

Supporters wave French national flags during a Marine Le Pen election event in Paris, April 17, 2017.Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP

Jewish, Muslim and the undecided vote

Macron: Enjoys broad support from minority communities in France, including Jews and moderate Muslims, the latter being the greatest victims of France’s economic slowdown. He is considered to be the most pro-Israel candidate of the four. Some 30 percent of his supporters say they may change their mind before Election Day, but many undecided voters also say they are mulling whether to vote for him.

Le Pen: Failed to silence the anti-Semitic voices in her movement – just this week it was revealed that the treasurer of her National Front party had a fake Facebook identity in order to celebrate Hitler’s birthday with his friends. Despite growing extremism in the conflict between Jews and Muslims in France, few Jews have been persuaded to vote for her. Le Pen has the highest number of voters who are confident they will not change their mind and will cast their ballot for her on Sunday. She considered establishing a “Muslims for Le Pen” movement, but ultimately decided it would do her more harm than good.

Jean-Luc Melénchon, the far-left candidate, during a rally in Dijon, April 18, 2017.Credit: ROBERT PRATTA/REUTERS

Melénchon: One of France’s fiercest critics of Israel and salts his anti-Zionism with statements that border on anti-Semitism. He has rejected such criticism of him, saying: “We do not believe there is a people superior to other peoples.” He has defended Arab protesters who shouted “Death to Jews,” saying they are protesting those French Jews who have enlisted in the army of another nation. He is widely supported by traditional French Muslims, partly because of his position that France needs to limit its secular laws and allow Muslims more freedom to observe their religion. He has very little support among undecided voters.

Fillon: Many Jews traditionally vote for the Republican Party, but Fillon’s Christian positions frighten them. Jewish newspaper Actualité Juive revealed in March that Fillon supports banning kosher slaughter, and his statements against communitarianism” (social division) have not calmed any of these fears. He is supported by the Muslim bourgeoisie, some of whom he calls “the voters who are ashamed of me,” and 72 percent of his supporters say they are confident they’ll vote for him. Forty-five percent of undecided voters say they are considering voting for him.

Risks they face as Election Day nears

Macron: Fears a massive last-minute return of right-wing voters to Fillon and a low voter turnout. Also fears a major, external security incident could take control of the agenda.

Le Pen: Her greatest danger is a strong comeback by Fillon, who is the only candidate who can keep her from reaching the second round. She is hoping for a low voter turnout, but the tense, close race may actually lead to a record turnout.

Melénchon: The problem with most young voters is that they really are young, Charles de Gaulle once said. As a result, it is unclear how many will actually be able to vote in the polling places where they are registered (usually at their parents’ address), and how many have completed the necessary paperwork allowing them to vote. A large proportion of Melénchon’s new supporters traditionally vote for Le Pen, and they could return to her at the moment of truth. Finally, dramatic warnings from economists against his election could cause the penny to drop even among his own voters.

Fillon: Will be the main casualty of low voter turnout.

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