8 FAQs about the French Election

1. How does the French Presidential Election system work?

  • The French directly elect their president every 5 years.
  • France has a semi-presidential system where the President leads the executive branch and selects a Prime Minister who is responsible to both houses of Parliament.
  • Elections for President take place in a two-round system, where the second round is between only the top two candidates if no clear majority has been won. April 23 was the first round of Presidential Elections and the final round is on Sunday, May 7.
  • Within France on the day of the election, no results can be published until polls close. There is also no campaigning after 12am the Friday before the election.
  • Power has customarily shifted between the center-left Parti socialiste (PS) and the center-right Les Republicains (LR). Still, France is not exactly like our two-party system because politics is conducted through forming coalitions among multiple parties.


2. Who are the two presidential candidates and their parties?

The two candidates for the May 7 Presidential Election are the winners of April 23’s first-round: Emmanuel Macron (EM: En Marche!) and Marine Le Pen (FN: Le Front national).

Former-Parti socialiste member, Emmanuel Macron later called himself an “independent” but also held ministerial-level positions under President Hollande where he pushed pro-business legislation. He comes from a finance background and has never held an elected office, but is seen as a favorite to win the presidency. Last year, he created En Marche! (Forward!) as a progressive, non-partisan, centrist, pro-market, pro-European Union party. He placed first on April 23rd with 24% of the vote.

Le Front national was founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and she succeeded him in 2011. In the 2012 elections, she placed third in the first round with almost 18% of the vote. The populist, right (or far-right, depending on one’s view) party has often faced controversy for some of its views and statements on race and history. In 1987 for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen called Nazi gas chambers “a detail” of World War II. Madame Le Pen though is trying to distance herself and her party from such statements. In 2015, she expelled her father from the party and is attempting to further “soften the party’s image,” pushing out neo-Nazi elements as well as explicitly condemning anti-Semitism and racism. Especially under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the party has grown in strength and popularity, securing victories at the local as well as European Parliamentary level. In her presidential campaign, she has pledged to continue seeking much stricter controls against illegal immigration and to promote secularization, in particular toward religious observances in public spaces. She placed second on April 23 with 21% of the vote.


3. Who got eliminated?

Eleven candidates made it to April 23’s first round. Here are the top two of the nine that were eliminated:

Francois Fillon of Les Republicains served as Prime Minister under former-President Nicolas Sarkozy. He surprisingly won his party’s nomination and described himself as a “Thatcherite.” He is critical of the European Union and hoped to take a tougher stance against terrorism as well as strengthen France’s borders. Once a favorite, March’s “Penelopegate” scandal about paying his wife for a fake job with public money ruined his chances. He placed third on April 23 with 20%; it was the first time the center-right party did not make it to the second round. After the first-round was over, he called Macron to congratulate him on his victory and has revealed that he will vote for Macron as well.

The dark-horse candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, placed fourth in the 2012 elections with 11% of the vote. He is a former-Parti socialiste member and is now head of the Parti de gauche (PG – Left Party). The far-left eurosceptic wanted to promote environmental causes, dramatically increase France’s minimum wage, and tax the rich at 100%. His France insoumise (FI – France Unbowed) political platform sought to establish the French Sixth Republic with him as president. He again placed fourth on April 23, this time with 19.6%.


4. Why is the incumbent, Francois Hollande, not running and who replaced him?

At the end of last year, Hollande told his Parti Socialiste that he would not run, which paved the way for Benoit Hamon to win the nomination. Hamon had served under Hollande as Minister of National Education in 2014 but resigned within months. Hamon was also a strong supporter of getting France on renewable energy and said that “[economic] growth has become a pseudo-religion.” Once a top-contender, Hamon’s campaign fell apart for many reasons including being seen as too focused on the future as opposed to more current issues; he placed a distant fifth on April 23 with about 6%.

Francois Hollande is the first president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic (created in 1958) not to seek re-election. His popularity has been as low as 4% but has fluctuated much during his term. People within and outside of his party see him as having drifted away from socialist principles such as with his economic policy. Harsh remarks by Hollande, high unemployment, terrorist attacks and his policy on Syria have contributed to his unpopularity. After the first round, Hollande endorsed Macron.


5. Is this a typical election or something new?

Le Monde called the 2017 election “unprecedented and confusing since the start” which is safe to say because of the quick rise and falls of so many different parties and candidates. Perhaps most surprisingly, neither of the two major parties made it to the final round. Macron’s EM party is only a year old but it has advanced to the final round and he is the favorite to win. Le Pen’s FN too has made serious gains. So, is France moving away from typical de facto two-party (with coalitions) politics between the traditional center-left and the center-right?

With the FN specifically, some argue that its recent rise shouldn’t be surprising. In the 2002 election, the party made it to the final round of the presidential election (though it lost, 17.8% to 82.2%) and in 2012 it came in third in the first round.  A few believe that this is the year the populist FN could pull an upset, as seen in the 2016 American elections or the referendum results on the Colombian Peace Agreement. On the other hand, the Austrian election last year is one of example that the strength of the current wave of far-right populism may be waning.


6. How are French people reacting?

The first round of voting was the first to be under a state of emergency due to the November 2015 attacks. Terrorism continues to lead to national feelings of sadness, anger, fatigue, and fear and this has played out in different ways; for example, it has perhaps contributed to the recent increase in Mass attendance in typically secular France.

Political malaise may be up too. France usually has high election turnouts but during the run-up to April 23rd, over 30% said they wouldn’t vote. According to one poll before the first round, these feelings particularly hit the youth with only 55% of 18-24 year olds saying that they would vote in the first round. The actual turnout in the first round, though, was almost 78%, only a little less than the 2012 election (80%). Yet getting to and through the final election, another question to consider is: how will each candidate now seek to form coalitions from among the losers and their supporters, some of whom refuse to support either candidate?


7. How are outsiders reacting?

Shortly after the terrorist attack of April 20, President Trump tweeted that it would likely help Le Pen’s chances. President Putin invited Madame Le Pen to the Kremlin in March and there have also been accusations of Russian interference in the presidential election.

Pro-EU European leaders, including the President of the European Parliament, have urged people to vote for Macron over Le Pen, while Brexit supporters in Great Britain are excited at the prospect of a possible ally in an anti-EU France under Le Pen. As election day approaches, more outsiders will select a candidate to endorse.


8. What are some other implications of the election?

Some of the eliminated candidates were the strongest on the environment so their absence in this round will have obvious serious implications. The candidates’ economic and trade policy too, which is connected to immigration policy, will always have effects on the domestic and global economies. Concretely, the Euro went up when Macron won the first round and markets will continue carefully watching what will happen on May 7.

The FN has continued its rise in France, gaining more support than expected in the first round, even more than in 2002. This is because it has managed to capitalize on feelings in France, in particular regarding the perceived loss of national identity. Though Le Pen is becoming the “human face of the far-right” many are disturbed by her stances on Islam and immigration. Further, her promised referendum on “Frexit” and possible ensuing departure of France, a founding EU member, would very likely lead to the dissolution of the European Union. A victory for her party in the final round may also set off another wave of populism, which would impact Legislative Elections in June and/or strengthen populism’s worldwide movement. Often left out of the conversation though, if Le Pen and her party do win the election, she would be France’s first female president.

Macron, relatively new to politics, has also said that he is willing to change France as necessary. His views appeal more to the center and he continues to seek support around this moderate base. Though less internationally known than Le Pen, his fresh views, as well as the overall un-usual nature of the election up to this point, have already changed a lot in French politics society. So, if he wins, continued change in France and Europe is still guaranteed, though like with Le Pen, exactly how that change will happen can only be a matter of speculation.

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