The French Presidential Election: Round One

By: Annie Schoenfeldt


A wave of uncertainty sweeps the political landscape at the approach of the April 23 presidential election. Four candidates: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, François Fillon, and Emmanuel Macron, vie for votes in a contentious and close race. If no candidate wins over 50% of the vote, the elections will continue in a May 7 runoff amongst the top two candidates.1 Pre-voting polling holds Le Pen and Macron at a tie for top contender, followed by Fillon and then Melenchon.2 Fillon had formerly led in the polls, but fell in popularity after allegations of misuse of public funds to pay his wife an exorbitant salary for a job of questionable legitimacy. Meanwhile, Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, has surged in popularity after overtaking the Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon.

The staying power of the far-right Le Pen, as well as the recent surge in popularity of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, signals an underlying discontent among French people with the status quo. For voters, Le Pen champions herself as a savior of the “core French,” who uphold patriotic values and ethnic and religious homogeneity.3 She professes herself as a defender against three threats: globalism, the European Union, and Islam. In policy, she calls for a dramatic reduction of immigration rates and “economic patriotism” that penalizes companies for outsourcing manufacturing to other countries.4 Her fervency calls to the working class French population, called the “forgotten French,” who live outside of major city centers e. Here, Le Pen’s promise to put native French people before immigrants targets those who have seen their livelihoods dwindle in what Le Pen calls a betrayal of the French identity as a result of economic and social liberalism.5

Perhaps the most surprising of her supporters are the young. Across France, polls suggest a movement of young people away from the traditional left-leaning candidates. In France, unemployment levels for those under 24 years of age are more than double the national average, 26% to 9.6%6. The Front National Party led by Le Pen, promises a chance at an equal playing field in corporate and political opportunities. The Front National’s promise of a closed, protectionist society gives the young an alternative to the liberalism and openness proclaimed by parties garnering the youth vote in other countries. At Sciences Po, a renowned Parisian school known for its progressive thinking, a band of students formed the first Front National student group. The public support for the Front National Party amongst the under 24 age category reveals the mainstreaming of a party whose critics say is rooted in racism and xenophobia.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Relatively unknown until late in the election cycle, he has made strides to emerge amongst the top four candidates after an initially slow start at fifth place.7 His ascent in polls, especially so close to the first runoff on April 23, threatens the stability of centrist Emmanuel Macron’s lasting power. Mélenchon condemns both Le Pen and Macron’s message, making a marked break from both the status quo and the radical. He campaigns on the premise of a 100 billion Euro stimulus plan, a four day, 32-hour week, and a plan to pull France out of NATO.8 As the first round of voting approaches, he appeals to French citizens to remember their multicultural heritage, but rally against corporate institutions and the free market. Amongst his base: the working class French and young people. He, like Le Pen, appeals to those who feel let down by globalism and policies geared towards big business rather than individuals. Although he overlaps with Le Pen in his pledge to fight for those who feel left out of current policies most notably groups who are poor, rural, or young: Melenchon veers away from embracing the idea of one French identity. Instead, he embraces an amalgamation of many cultures and offers support for France’s multi-colored identity.

As both Le Pen and Melenchon head to the first round of run-off elections alongside their more moderate counterparts Fillon and Macron, every vote will be critical. The two candidates, both reaching for voters of similar economic and social groups, offer a vision of France’s future that diverges from the status quo. Current polls show Le Pen tied with Macron for first, with Melenchon at the bottom, but estimates for the second round of voting give Melenchon a stronger chance against Macron, who is tied as front-runner. Whatever the results, one thing is certain: all of France will be watching.

1 “French Election Explained in Five Charts.” BBC News . BBC, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
2 “Europe’s Complex Politics Moving Polls and Markets.” The Wall Street Journal . Dow Jones & Company, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
3 Coman, Julian. “Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron Face off for the Soul of France.” The Observer . Guardian News and Media, 26 Mar. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
4 Branford, Marysia Nowak & Becky. “France Elections: What Makes Marine Le Pen Far Right?” BBC News . BBC, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017
5 Willsher, Kim. “In ‘forgotten France’, Le Pen’s Young Backers Say Only She Cares for Them.” The Guardian . Guardian News and Media, 09 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

6 Willsher, Kim. “In ‘forgotten France’, Le Pen’s Young Backers Say Only She Cares for Them.” The Guardian . Guardian News and Media, 09 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

7 France-Presse, Agence. “Leftist Candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon Shakes up France’s Presidential Race.” The Guardian . Guardian News and Media, 09 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

8 Robinson, Joshua, and William Horobin. “France’s Volatile Presidential Race Puts Far-Left Crusader in the Mix.” The Wall Street Journal . Dow Jones & Company, 11 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

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