The French (Dis)Connection
April 21, 2017
This Sunday, April 23, French voters will head to the polls for the first round of their presidential election. For the first time, populist and nationalistic candidates are faring as well as traditional party candidates. The election is too close to call and will be a test of the strength of populism in one of the European Union’s founding member states and a harbinger of future European political stability.
Q1: What is happening this Sunday?
A1: The presidential election in France is held in two rounds: all the contenders face off in the first round on April 23, and if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote on that day, the top two candidates head to a runoff election on May 7. The victor will be inaugurated within about 10 days as successor to the current socialist president, François Hollande, for a five-year term.
Q2: Who are the leading contenders?
A2: Eleven contenders are battling for the presidency, but only four candidates currently have double-digit support in opinion polls. Of those four, three represent nontraditional parties or a political movement: far-left, protectionist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (18.5 percent, France Insoumise); centrist and pro-European Emmanuel Macron (24 percent, En Marche!); and far-right, anti-immigration Marine Le Pen (22.5 percent, Front National). Although considered political “outsiders,” Le Pen and Mélenchon have been in French politics for decades, and Macron briefly served as minister of economy in the Hollande government. Right-wing Les Républicains candidate François Fillon (19.5 percent) is the only contender of the top four from the political establishment, although corruption charges have clouded his presidential bid as he was placed under formal investigation in early March. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon is polling near 7 percent.
Q3: What have been the key factors in the race?
A3: The big stories of the race are the unprecedented uncertainty and the ongoing collapse of France’s traditional party structures: by current estimates, the candidates of the two establishment parties (Fillon and Hamon) are set to receive a little over 25 percent of the popular vote on Sunday, and it is quite possible neither will make it to the runoff—a first in the nearly 60-year history of the Fifth Republic. As for the outcome, for the first time in decades, four different candidates are within the statistical margin of error, and each realistically has a chance of acceding to the second round.
Far-left candidate Mélenchon has surged in opinion polls in the past month and appears to have momentum. He is charismatic and has managed to tap into antiglobalist discontent in postindustrial regions with voters wary of high levels of immigration and fed up with the capitalist system. Some of these positions overlap with the views of Le Pen’s base. She has a core support of around 25 percent, and the National Front base can be counted on to turn out on election day. This assures her a certain vote floor, but she has struggled to break out with the broader electorate, most of which rejects her extreme platform. Fillon’s core support is also very reliable but hovers around 17 percent, and the persistence of the scandals plaguing his candidacy has hurt his chances to expand his support substantially.
Voter turnout is expected to be high, between 75 and 80 percent, but undecideds still represent 27 percent of eligible voters—a high number compared to past elections and a source of significant uncertainty about the outcome. The diversity of choice on offer and the issues at play in the election have contributed to the volatility of the race. Indeed, globalization (the European Union, trade, and immigration) and the future orientation of France are on the ballot this Sunday—issues for which the candidates offer very different views and remedies, from protectionism and blocking immigration to more European integration.
Q4: Why is this race so important?
A4: France is critical to European policymaking and is a strong ally of the United States. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a NATO member with independent nuclear forces, and a military contributor to antiterrorism campaigns in the Sahel and against ISIS. The next French president will help shape the EU position in the impending Brexit negotiations and will be central to the future economic direction of France and ultimately the European Union.
Extreme candidates could dramatically alter France’s position in the European Union, NATO, and its bilateral relationship with the United States. Both Mélenchon and Le Pen seek to shield France from the effects of globalization and advocate for French withdrawal. The outcome of this election will provide important clues as to whether the wave of populism and nationalism that has engulfed Europe since the 2008 financial crisis has crested or if it will break the dominance of establishment parties of a major European power and seize its highest office. Sunday is a critical choice for French voters.
Q5: What should we watch for on Sunday?
A5: Turnout will be a crucial element. Turnout figures should be released around noon eastern standard time (EST), and initial results should be available between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. EST. Any outcome is possible among the top four candidates, and markets are reacting cautiously in the face of this uncertainty: the volatility of the euro has reached its highest levels since before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, and the spreads between German and French bonds have widened.
Russian influence has also played a role in this campaign: Russian state-owned media have published misleading polls asserting Fillon was ahead in the race and have spread false allegations that Macron had an extramarital affair with a man. Macron’s campaign has reportedly suffered cyber attacks and hundreds of attempts to penetrate its e-mail server, similar to the Democratic National Committee attacks in 2016. A recent survey of Internet links shared by French social media users showed that almost 25 percent contained misleading or flat-out false information sometimes akin to conspiracy theories. Some of these articles used sources such as Russian-backed RT and Sputnik.
After Sunday, the election will shift and become a very different race. The second round on May 7 represents a dramatically different political contest in which most voters will have to choose between two candidates they likely did not support in the first round. Finalists will have to broaden their appeal, and voter turnout (and voter abstentions) will be crucial in determining the next leader of France.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Donatienne Ruy is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images