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Analysis: What is the French presidential election really about?

James J. Marlow examines the 2017 French presidential election and explains what is really on the minds of the voters. According to Marlow, considerations about the French economy, job market and security all play a major role in this election. In addition, the French voters are also thinking about their country’s future in the EU.
Marine Le Pen Photo Credit: EPA

In an astonishing move, Marine Le Pen stepped down from leading the National Front party in what is being seen as an apparently calculated move to appear more presidential as she heads into the second and final round to become the next French President.

With an unprecedented total of 11 candidates last Sunday, Marine Le Pen saw off nine of them and will now face the independent and centralist figure Emmanuel Macron on May 7.

This will be the first time since the current French presidential system was introduced in 1958 that no candidate from the main center left or center right parties has reached the final round.

Current French President Francois Hollande who took office in May 2012 has urged the French people to endorse Emmanuel Macron in a bid to keep out the former National Front leader. Hollande, who did not stand for re-election, has seen his socialist party plummet in popularity in the past two years and under the new socialist leader, Benoit Hamon, the party received just 6.4% of the vote.

Nevertheless, Hollande addressed voters from the Elysee Palace, insisting prices will soar, jobs will be lost and the country will be divided if Le Pen is chosen as the next president. He also spoke of the danger of France “becoming isolated and breaking away from the EU” if Le Pen sweeps to power.

Hollande’s words sounded very similar to the “project fear” that British referendum voters were subjected to last year but still voted Brexit in order to get back control of laws, borders and money. But Hollande is one of many European politicians who still refuse to learn from past mistakes, which could drive the French to a “Franxit.”  

In any case, Hollande is the most unpopular president in France's history and it is hard to see how his words will have any credibility on voters.

Francois Fillon, a former prime minister, was once well ahead in the polls but his campaign was derailed by corruption allegations involving his wife, who was allegedly paid as his non-working parliamentary aide and refused to resign. Fillon has backed Macron for the next round. But the far left leaning communist candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who had looked like he may also reach the final two, which really spooked the markets, has so far not endorsed either candidate.

France has a 10% unemployment rate and nearly a quarter of its young people are out of work. Thus, it appears that France never really pulled itself out of the 2008 recession and therefore this election is more about the economy and jobs. But security also became a dominant issue, especially with the murder of another policeman on Paris’ famed Champs-Elysees Avenue. The ISIS attack just a few days before the first round of the election reminded voters there was no sign of an end to the continuous Islamic terror attacks on French soil.

But the EU also played a fairly strong role in the election, with Le Pen and Melenchon both insisting they would hold a referendum on whether France should leave the body and together, they received 41.17% of the vote.

The French are nevertheless angry with the political establishment and some of the 47 million eligible voters (1.3 million living abroad) said they abstained because they have lost faith in the politicians. Fillon refused to step down over corruption allegations despite losing huge support and is now out of the race. Macron, who served as Hollande’s Economy Minister from 2014 to 2016, cut himself off the socialist party because of its unpopularity and Le Pen has now resigned from the National Front to try and show the French people she can be President for all of France’s citizens.  

Even when voters return to their bureau de vote on May 7, many will still be undecided, faced with paper slips for a former socialist economy minister who became independent but many don’t know his agenda or a former National Front leader who still believes in National Front policies and may even return to the party.

This will be the test of the voters’ anger and France’s political establishment and only one of them will make it to the Elysée palace.

JOL Blogger | James Marlow

James is a former broadcast journalist who worked with CNN, ITN, EuroNews and Reuters. He is now writing for various publications in UK and Israel. In addition, James is a guest news contributor specializing in world affairs, British politics, Israel and the Middle East for many networks including Sky News, France 24, LBC Radio and Al Jazeera.

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