Skip to main content

With the first round of voting set to begin this weekend, Paul Waldie explains the issues at stake in an exceptionally chaotic and unpredictable race

Above: The eleven candidates approved to run for French president, in alphabetical order : Nathalie Arthaud, François Asselineau, Jacques Cheminade, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, François Fillon, Benoît Hamon, Jean Lassalle, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Philippe Poutou.

This has been one of the wildest and most unpredictable presidential campaigns in French history and it's about to get even more interesting on Sunday when voters head to the polls for the first round of voting. There are 11 candidates and if no one gets more than 50 per cent of the ballots, the top two finishers face-off in a head to head showdown on May 7. Here's a look at the main contenders, the big issues and how it works.

What's at stake: This election won't just affect France, it will reverberate across Europe and around the world. No matter who wins, France will have a new president who will want to reshape the country's relationship with the European Union. And there's a chance the country could leave the EU altogether. That would be the end of the EU, since France is the union's second-largest economy and a seat of the European Parliament. France's role in NATO is also in doubt, along with its ties to Russia and participation in regional conflicts such as Syria and Iraq.

First some basics: French voters have been directly electing their president since 1962, when changes were made to the constitution to create the two-round system, which is also used in parliamentary and local elections. Before then the president was elected indirectly by an electoral college. Another constitutional change in 2000 cut the president's term to five years from seven, and later changes mandated that he or she can only serve two consecutive terms. François Hollande, who was elected in 2012, decided not to run for re-election, mainly because of terrible approval ratings. Polls close at 7 p.m. Sunday, and the results will come a few hours later.

Dieppe: Francois is a supporter of candidate Marine Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen, National Front

Who is she? Ms. Le Pen, 48, is a lawyer and member of the European Parliament. A long-time party worker, she took over as leader of the National Front in 2011, replacing her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The two have had a bitter split, and Mr. Le Pen has been effectively expelled.

Has she run before? Yes. Ms. Le Pen received 17.9 per cent of the vote in 2012, finishing third in the first round. The best showing by Mr. Le Pen was in 2002, when he advanced to the second round and lost to Jacques Chirac.

What does she want to do? Ms. Le Pen has toned down the sharp edges of the National Front and modified its position on several issues, notably abortion, capital punishment and environmental protection. Her campaign literature doesn't even mention the National Front. She's offering a France-first platform that includes pulling the country out of the euro zone and holding a referendum on France's membership in the EU. She's also promising to suspend immigration, hire 15,000 new police officers, impose a tax on companies that hire foreign workers and end the automatic right to citizenship through marriage. And she's calling for the retirement age to be lowered from 62 to 60.

Any problems? Many French voters still view the National Front as racist. The party's call to scrap the euro is not popular. And Ms. Le Pen, usually a fierce debater, underwhelmed viewers during two TV debates.

Can she win? Unlikely. Most polls have her finishing on top in the first round but losing in the second.

Rennes: Bruno is a supporter of candidate Emmanuel Macron.

Emmanuel Macron, En Marche!

Who is he? Mr. Macron, 39, is a former treasury official and banker who served as an adviser to Mr. Hollande and later as his economy minister. He's also an accomplished pianist.

Has he run before? He has never held elected office. He resigned from Mr. Hollande's cabinet in 2016 after two years amid a series of disagreements and formed En Marche!

What does he want to do? Mr. Macron is pro-Europe. He's running as "neither right nor left" and promises to draw cabinet ministers from all sides. He vows to cut the size of the public service, reduce spending and streamline the country's labour regulations. He supports immigration, backs the EU's open borders and has praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy. He also wants to strengthen France's role within the EU and would take a hard line on talks with Britain over Brexit.

Any problems? He's had trouble getting people to take him seriously and has been viewed by some observers as vacuous. He caused controversy by claiming that France's colonization of Algeria was a "crime against humanity." And the tabloids have had a field day with his marriage to his high-school drama teacher, who is 24 years his senior.

Can he win? He is the favourite. Most polls have him finishing second to Ms. Le Pen in the first round, then beating her handily in the second.

Rennes: Nolwenn is a supporter of candidate François Fillon.

François Fillon, Republican Party

Who is he? Mr. Fillon, 63, is a long-time politician who started his career in the late 1970s and served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under president Nicolas Sarkozy. He won the Republican Party's presidential primary last November, stunning the party establishment by defeating Mr. Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé.

Has he run before? This is his first run for president but he has been elected at every other level of government.

What does he want to do? Mr. Fillon has been described as a French version of Margaret Thatcher because of his ambitious plans to overhaul the government. He wants to cut 500,000 public-service jobs (the country has almost six million civil servants), end the 35-hour workweek, raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and slash public spending. He's lukewarm on the EU, wants to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin and vows to strengthen France's border controls, labelling Ms. Merkel's refugee policy a mistake. He's also a devout Catholic who opposed same-sex marriage and has promised to reverse adoption rights for gay people.

Any problems? Oh yes. His campaign has been hampered by a scandal involving his wife, Penelope, who Mr. Fillon put on the public payroll as an assistant even though she allegedly did no work. The police are investigating, and Mr. Fillon could face fraud charges. He has admitted making mistakes but insists the police probe is politically motivated.

Can he win? He was the favourite a few months ago, but "Penelope-gate" left him sinking to third or fourth place in some polls. Few expect him to make it to the second round.

Rennes: Lou and Enora are supporters of candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, France Insoumise

Who is he? Mr. Mélenchon, 65, was born in Tangier, Morocco, and came to France at the age of 11 with his parents. He joined the Socialist Party in the 1970s and won elections at several levels, including the Senate in 1986, when he became the youngest senator in French history at 35. He served as the minister for professional education from 2000 to 2002 but quit the Socialists in 2008 and founded the Left Party. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2009.

Has he run before? Yes. In 2012 Mr. Mélenchon won 11.1 per cent of the vote and finished fourth in the first round.

What does he want to do? Mr. Mélenchon has a far-left agenda and is running under the banner "La France Insoumise" (Unsubmissive France), which is backed by the Communist Party. He wants to impose a 90-per-cent tax on any income above €400,000 ($566,000); renegotiate France's membership in the EU; cancel the Canada-EU trade deal; withdraw France from NATO; and develop closer ties with countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Bolivia. He also vows to massively increase public spending, boost the minimum wage by 16 per cent, reduce the 35-hour workweek and lower the retirement age to 60. He would open the doors to asylum seekers and transform government by rewriting the constitution to include more participation by citizens and more referendums.

Any problems? His policies are radical, to say the least, and he's become a target of the right and left. This is also looking like a rerun of 2012, when Mr. Mélenchon scored high in the polls but did worse than expected on voting day.

Can he win? Things are different this time. Mr. Mélenchon has been rising steadily in the polls thanks to the collapse of the Socialist Party, the troubles of Mr. Fillon and concerns about Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen. He also did remarkably well in the TV debates and has a popular YouTube channel. However, most polls still put him in third or fourth place.

A man walks past campaign posters of all 11 candidates in Le Soler, near Perpignan, France, on April 15, 2017.

Who else is running and do they have a chance?

Benoît Hamon: The Socialist Party candidate is the only other mainstream contender, and his campaign has fallen flat, brought down largely because of the unpopularity of Mr. Hollande. Five years ago the Socialists controlled the presidency, parliament and most of the regional government, but they now face a virtual collapse.

Philippe Poutou: The auto worker and union leader is running for the New Anticapitalist Party. He got 1 per cent of the vote in 2012 and became something of a star during the TV debate this month when he took on Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Fillon over their scandals. But he faces a tough time distinguishing his message from that of Mr. Mélenchon.

The others include hard-left candidate Nathalie Arthaud, anti-EU campaigner François Asselineau, far-right candidate Jacques Cheminade, conservative Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and independent Jean Lassalle.