News & Politics

Topsy-turvy French election still has surprises in store

ndependent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron waves an European flag during a meeting in Nantes, western France, Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Polls suggest Macron has a good chance of coming out on top of Sunday’s first round and reaching the May 7 runoff. (David Vincent/Associated Press)
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A French presidential campaign that’s been filled with unprecedented twists and turns still has surprises in store heading into Sunday’s first-round vote. With voters in a rebellious mood and many hesitant to the end about their choices, the identities of the two candidates who will progress to a winner-takes-all May 7 runoff remain anyone’s guess.

With 11 contenders — from far-left to far-right — for the 47 million registered electors to choose from, the election is a high-stakes test for the European Union and for populist leaders who would tear it down.

Like Donald Trump in the United States, anti-establishment French populists Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon hope for an electoral electro-shock by surfing to power on voter disgust with politics as usual. Failure by both to qualify for round two would signal a receding of the populist wave that crashed over the European Union with Britain’s vote last year to leave.

The months-long French campaign only seemed to grow weirder and more uncertain as polling day approached. A jobs-for-the-family financial scandal that punctured the Mr. Clean image and campaign of one-time front-runner Francois Fillon fueled the raging distrust between voters and their elected representatives. The siren call of Le Pen’s ‘France first’ nationalist rhetoric, and Melenchon’s late surge left Europe’s second-largest country and third-biggest economy at a crossroads, with its future in the EU up for grabs.

The implosion of the ruling Socialist Party, with outgoing President Francois Hollande too unpopular to run again, and the stunning success of his former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, with an upstart middle-way grassroots campaign without major party backing, threatened to dismantle postwar France’s traditional left-right political divide.

The threat of Islamic extremism after two years of attacks that killed more than 230 people, and with police thwarting what the government said was another planned attack this week, meant the vote was being held under heightened security, with more than 50,000 police and soldiers mobilized for Sunday. A state of emergency has been in place since 2015.

With the race too close to call, hesitant voters agonized over whether to follow their hearts or their heads in the first round, meaning either backing their candidate of choice or casting a strategic vote aimed at keeping out candidates they didn’t want to have to choose between on May 7.

“It’s complicated,” real estate agent Felix Lenglin said during his lunch-time break in a Paris park. “We have to vote to stop the extremes but among the moderates, it’s a really difficult choice.”

The nightmare scenario for global financial markets is a second-round duel between the equally sharp-tongued Le Pen and Melenchon. Victory for either could, in the wake of the Brexit vote, deliver a possibly knockout punch to the stated EU ambition of ever-closer union between the peoples of Europe because both want to tear up agreements that bind together the 28 EU states.

Melenchon says “the Europe of our dreams is dead.” He proposes “disobeying treaties from the moment we take power” and negotiating new EU rules — followed by a referendum on whether France should leave the bloc it helped found. “We either change the EU or quit it,” Melenchon’s manifesto says.

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