This article was published on The Huffington Post
One of my favourite French words is bouleversement. It means disruption or upheaval. Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 World Cup final represented bouleversement for the French team. When Parisian bakers were allowed to go on holiday whenever they wanted for the first time in 2015, there was (perhaps) bouleversement as locals found it harder to buy baguettes. Determined to conserve their culture, their language and their 35-hour week, the French see bouleversements everywhere.
On Sunday 23rd April French voters go to the polls for the first-round of the presidential election. There are eleven candidates facing the voters, and – providing no-one reaches the 50 percent threshold – the top two will go through to the second-round a fortnight later.
It has certainly been a campaign of bouleversements. If you have not been following it so far, here is a guide to the main candidates.
After Brexit and Trump, attention has shifted to Le Pen. The leader of the far-right Front National wants to take France out of the euro and renegotiate its relationship with the EU. She has consistently led polls for the first-round, but it remains unlikely that she will win the second. Generally supporters of all other parties gang up against her party, as happened when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, made it through to the second round in 2002.
All the same, it is remarkable that the leader of a party seen as toxic for decades attracts the support of around a quarter of voters. Since taking over the Front National from Jean-Marie in 2011, Le Pen has worked to “de-demonise” it.
She realised the far-right had more to gain from exploiting fears about Islam than from the anti-Semitism of her father, and she has learnt to play on cynicism with the European and national establishments. She also realised it was worth supporting protectionism and the defence of the welfare state (while promising to favour natives over newcomers) in order to attract working-class votes.
The Front National can be traced back to a strain of the French right which rejected the secular republic. Now, Le Pen duplicitously presents herself as defending not just the republic, but also the rights of women, gays and Jews from Islamism.
Set to reverse the rising tide of populist nationalism across the west is Emmanuel Macron, the populist internationalist. He has become the most likely next president despite standing for many things the French are sceptical about: immigration, feminism, fiscal deregulation, and acquiescing to German budgetary demands.
The movement he created, En Marche!, pitches to liberal and moderate voters from the left and right. He has tapped into frustration with mainstream politicians from the Republican and Socialist parties (who between them have led France for decades).
His anti-establishment shtick is ironic given his career up to now. After studying at the prestigious École nationale d’administration (ENA) he worked as a civil servant before going into banking at Rothschild. He then took up a role (despite not being elected) as Minister for the Economy in François Hollande’s incredibly unpopular government, where he repeatedly attacked Socialist shibboleths such as the 35-hour week and the large size of the public sector.
If, as is most likely, Macron faces off against Le Pen in the second round, it will give voters the starkest possible choice on how to deal with the economy, the EU and immigration. It will also have relegated the two traditional parties in French politics to mere observers.
Given the unpopularity of the current Socialist president François Hollande, centre-right party Les Républicains were hopeful going into the campaign. So-called Monsieur Bling-Bling Nicolas Sarkozy had spent the last few years preparing his comeback. His main contender was thought to be Alain Juppé, a veteran considered popular enough to unite the Left and Right against Marine Le Pen.
For the first time the candidate was chosen in an open primary. Against expectations, the conservative grassroots chose François Fillon, a Catholic who has positioned himself against gay rights. He differentiated himself from Sarkozy by stating “one must be irreproachable” to govern a country.
This is now rather ironic, as he is defending allegations his wife and children fleeced the taxpayer by claiming money for working for him, without much evidence of actual work. His base has stuck by him, muttering about a dark plot to undermine him. Yet other centre-right politicians are uneasy about his Trumpian attacks on the judiciary and his use of his faith as an electoral tool in a secular country. Some have defected to Macron.
If Fillon falls short of the second round, what could be crucial in determining who is the next president is how many of his supporters would be prepared to vote for Le Pen over Macron.
The splits in the Republican Party are nothing compared to those in the Socialist Party. Their primary vote also produced an upset. Manuel Valls – the former Prime Minister who is seen as a hardliner on security matters – was defeated by party rebel Benoît Hamon. He wooed the grassroots with trendy leftist proposals such as a universal basic income, a robot tax, and the legalisation of cannabis.
Hamon has struggled since winning, with members and supporters of the party defecting to Macron, including Valls. Meanwhile, for those who like a purer form of idealism, far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been eroding Hamon’s support from the other side. Although the Green party candidate stepped down to support him, Hamon is now fighting just to reach double digits in the first round.
Jean-Luc is enjoying a late surge in the polls. Despite being on the other end of the political spectrum, like Le Pen he dislikes the EU and NATO, is generally pro-Russia, and wants more protectionism. He also backs a 100 percent wealth tax.
It is hard to imagine Mélenchon reaching the second round, but in this campaign of boulversements, who knows anymore?