France votes today: what you need to know

Today's vote for French President could reshape Europe and the destiny of those who hold the European project at hear

A victory for Marine Le Pen will send shockwaves throughout Europe and the rest of the world
A victory for Marine Le Pen will send shockwaves throughout Europe and the rest of the world

With polls suggesting the race is incredibly tight between the top five contenders, the French Presidential election is the most unpredictable in recent history. 

This election has sent shockwaves throughout the French political establishment and could end the virtual monopoly held by the mainstream Socialist and Republican parties. Most polls show that the second round set for 7 May is to be contested by two candidates representing fringe parties.

Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, the former protégé of outgoing president Francois Hollande, is now the bookies’ favourite to become president, with the average of the latest polls showing him marginally ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen. 

However, Thursday’s terror attack could yet alter the result.

The last few hours before today’s election were dominated by the killing of a police officer in an apparent terror attack on Paris’ Champs Élysées, once again placing security at the top of the electorate’s concerns. 

The timing, just three days before the first round of the presidential elections and during a prime time TV “debate” between all 11 official candidates, clearly suggests that extremists attempted to influence the outcome of the election. 

After seeing her support dwindle in recent weeks, Le Pen clearly hoped to claw back support after this latest attack by insisting that France requires a more authoritarian regime. But while some suggest the Champs Élysées attack could boost her campaign, previous terror attacks have not resulted in tangible gains for the far-right. 

Two years ago, Le Pen’s Front National came top in the first round of regional elections, just three weeks after the deadly Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed. However, in the second round Le Pen’s party failed to win any regions.

This does not however mean that Macron, who is often portrayed as a soft touch on security issues, will enjoy a late surge.  

Whoever goes through to the second round, the result of today’s election will resonate throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. A victory for Le Pen – who leads Europe’s largest far-right movement – would set France against itself and perhaps spell the end for the European project. 

On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has made significant gains after charismatic performances in televised debates and mass rallies across the country. 

Both Le Pen and Mélenchon, with some nuances of difference, have promised to restore France’s sovereignty and threatened to exit the EU. This leaves only two decisively pro-European candidates with a chance of reaching the Élysée: François Fillon, the conservative Catholic who has promised Thatcher-style economic reforms ,and Macron.


The main contenders

In total, 11 candidates have received approval to run in the election from the country’s Constitutional Council, having met the threshold of the sponsorship of 500 elected officials.

However, there are five leading candidates who stand a chance of going through to the second round. Apart from Macron and Le Pen, the top contenders include leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the two candidates representing the mainstream parties, conservative former-Prime Minister François Fillon and socialist and former education minister Benoit Hamon.On the far right, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen appears to have achieved more electoral success since distancing herself from some of her father’s more extreme xenophobic policies – a process she has termed “de-demonisation.” 

Latest opinion polls show Le Pen is ahead of the other four candidates in the first round – though a long way short of 50% - and is therefore likely to get through to the run-off.

In 2002, the Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen got through to the second round, but lost to Jacques Chirac as Socialist voters rallied around the Republican candidate to keep the far-right extremist out of the Élysée Palace.

The anti-establishment Le Pen has pledged to end immigration, slash crime, eradicate Islamism, pull France out of Europe and save it from globalisation. 

Her campaign’s main slogan is ‘in the name of the people’ and Le Pen has said her “economic nationalism” will benefit French business, while her Trumpesque “France-first” policies in housing, health, education and employment will favour French people.

Emmanuel Macron appears best placed to defeat Marine Le Pen
Emmanuel Macron appears best placed to defeat Marine Le Pen

Opinion polls currently suggest Marine Le Pen would be defeated in the second round by Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker running as an independent centrist and at 39, he has a real chance of becoming France’s youngest-ever president. 

Without the backing of a traditional political party, the former economy minister, who has never held an elected office, has promised a bit of everything to everyone.  His optimistic campaign and his calls for a total renewal of the French governing class have proved to be popular, especially with younger voters. 

He has pledged to help farmers, industry, employers, workers and entrepreneurs. His proposals include tax cuts alongside support for those on low incomes.

Among others he has promised a €50 billion public investment plan to cover infrastructure, job-training and end the dependence on coal and shift to renewable energy. 

The previous front-runner, centre-right Republican Francois Fillon, has lost pole position following allegations his wife and children were paid public money for jobs they never had. 

Francois Fillon served as Prime Minister for five years between 2007 and 2012
Francois Fillon served as Prime Minister for five years between 2007 and 2012

Prosecutors have launched a full judicial inquiry into the affair but he has survived an attempt within his party to replace him as candidate. Despite the setback, Fillon has consolidated his base in recent weeks, notably by moving further right on social issues, even hinting that he would give cabinet posts to leaders of a group of conservative Christians established to oppose same-sex marriage.

An Anglophile who admires Margaret Thatcher, Fillon has described France as “bankrupt” and pledged to slash the number of state workers by up to 600,000 in five years to fund €40 billion in tax breaks for companies and cuts in state spending.

Socialist and former education minister Benoit Hamon, with a reputation as a left-wing rebel entered the presidential contest as a rank outsider as the candidate representing the highly unpopular incumbent Francois Hollande’s party.

A fervent critic of austerity policies, Hamon wants to usher in radical reforms to the welfare system by introducing a basic income for all citizens of €750 a month and reducing the working week to 32 hours.

Benoit Hamon surprised many by winning the Socialist Party primary back in January
Benoit Hamon surprised many by winning the Socialist Party primary back in January

Hamon has also pledged the legalisation of cannabis and condemned rhetoric on the role of Islam in French society.

Of the five major candidates for the presidency, the pro-EU Hamon is currently at the back of the pack with fellow leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, threatening the frontrunners with a late surge in support.  

Mélenchon has the backing of the French Communist Party and stood unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2012.

A victory for Jean-Luc Melenchon could spell the end of the euro and of the EU as we know it
A victory for Jean-Luc Melenchon could spell the end of the euro and of the EU as we know it

The flamboyant and impassioned leader of La France Insoumise (Untamed France) has among others promised to cut the working week, lower the retirement age, raise the minimum wage and social security benefits, and tax top earners at 90%.

He also wants to abandon nuclear power, abolish the presidential regime of the Fifth Republic, and in foreign affairs withdraw from Nato, develop warmer ties with Russia, and renegotiate the terms of France’s EU membership – with the promise of an in-out referendum.