The Simple Guide For Foreigners To The French Election

In two weeks time, on the 23rd of April, the people of France will vote for their new President. This major event has gained added significance in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Trump, and could prove decisive for the existence of the European Union. The election raises fears of a surge in nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-Islam support, and will be a test of how strong these feelings are. The result will have a major impact on the rest of Europe (and possibly the world) with regard to immigration, refugees, the Euro, European co-operation, trade, economics and a dozen other areas. So even if you’re not French, the result will probably affect you.

So, let’s say you’re a foreigner who doesn’t know much about the election but would like to have at least a basic idea. Since I’m living in France, I thought I could give a simple breakdown of what will happen and what it will mean. Obviously, a French person could give a better explanation, but they would probably give it in French. Hopefully, an outsider view will be a fair one.

The Electoral System

The first thing to note is that France uses a different (to many countries) electoral system to elect its President. The vote is broken into two rounds. In the first round, a large number of candidates (this year there are 11) compete against each other and voters each select the one that they prefer. If this candidate wins a majority of the vote, then they become President (although this has never happened in the 50 years the system has existed). If no one receives a majority, then the top two candidates go to a second round and people vote a second time (usually a week later) between them.

Basically, people vote twice, once for their preferred candidate and a second time for a more mainstream option.

This system is more proportional than the American or British system where two parties hold a near monopoly on power because voting for anyone else is almost like wasting your vote. French people are more free to vote for a minor party if they support their policies, even if they have little chance of winning. However, there is still an element of tactical voting required to decide who gets into the second round.

For example, in 2002 it was widely expected that the centre-left candidate would reach the second round, so the left split its vote among a dozen minor parties. However, the vote was so fragmented that second place was won by the extremist far right. As a result, the second round was a contest between the centre-right and the far right, depriving the left of a candidate despite the fact they probably would have won if united behind one candidate.

The Candidates

There are 11 candidates in total, but half of them are minor fringe candidates polling at less than 1% that everyone ignores. Here are the five main candidates from right to left:

(All photos come from Wikipedia)

Name: Marine Le Pen

Party: Front national (National Front)

Support in opinion polls: 23-26%

Policies & beliefs:

  • Anti-Islam
  • Anti-EU (proposes a referendum to leave it)
  • Leave the Euro
  • Protectionism
  • Increase police numbers and prison places
  • Prioritise native French people in employment & housing
  • Drastically reduce immigration
  • Abolish same-sex marriage (but not retroactively)
  • Anti-NATO & Pro-Russia


The Front national is the most controversial French political party, (in)famous for its opposition to immigrants, Islam and the European Union. It is often compared to Donald Trump and labelled as far-right or even Fascist. The founder and former leader Jean- Marie Le Pen was notorious for his xenophobia and holocaust denial, but his daughter Marine has worked to present a more moderate image of the party. Its core promise is to take back the country and promote a “France First” policy.

Le Pen is facing investigation due to allegations misspent funds. It is claimed that €340,000 was claimed from the European Parliament to pay for parliamentary assistants was instead used to pay FN staff in France.


Name: François Fillon

Party: Les Republicans (The Republicans)

Support in opinion polls: 17-20%

Polices & Beliefs:

  • Balance the budget
  • Abolish the Wealth Tax
  • Cut public spending & taxes
  • Opposed same-sex marriage & abortion (but promised not to repeal them)
  • Increase the working week & retirement age
  • Increase defence and security spending
  • Pro-Russia
  • Anti-immigration
  • Representative of the Catholic Right

Comments: Fillon was Prime Minister between 2007-2012 and is often called the French Thatcher. He has emphasised the need for pro-business policies and reducing the size of the state. Some critics claim that he is too similar to the Front national, especially in regards to his opposition to multiculturalism and Islam. He has criticised the EU and written a book entitled “Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism” warning that “the bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life could herald a third world war”.

Fillon was the favourite to win until scandal broke regarding his wife. She was paid over €800,000 for work as a parliamentary assistant and €100,000 as a writer for a newspaper (whose owner is close friends with Fillon) but it has been alleged that she didn’t actually do any work. He is currently under investigation for embezzlement of public funds, yet he has remained in the race, despite dropping in support.

Emmanuel_Macron_crop (1)

Name: Emmanuel Macron

Party: En Marche (Forward!)

Support in opinion polls: 23-26%

Polices & Beliefs:

  • Pro-EU
  • Pro-immigration
  • Cut government spending
  • Hire more police officers & increase defence spending to 2%
  • Cut taxes
  • Called colonisation of Algeria “crime against humanity”
  • Expand welfare benefits

Comments: The former Minister for the Economy and investment banker at Rothschild, is the only candidate to never have held elected office. He is running as a Centrist, claiming to be neither left nor right. He has generally pro-free market policies, although they have been criticised for being vague. In contrast to the rise of the Front national, he is positive towards the EU and is the candidate who most strongly supports European integration.


Name: Benoît Hamon

Party: Parti socialiste (The Socialist Party)

Support in opinion polls: 10%

Polices & Beliefs:

  • Introduce a universal basic income of €750 for all citizens
  • Reduce the working week
  • Legalise cannabis
  • Make 50% of total energy production come from renewable energy by 2025
  • Pro-EU
  • Robot tax (tax on replacing workers with automation)

Comment: Hamon comes from the left wing of the Socialist Party and resigned as Education minister in protest at Hollande’s policies. His core policy is a promise to introduce a basic income, is positive towards the EU and less confrontational towards Islam. He plans to draft a new constitution to establish a 6th French Republic.


Name: Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Party: La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France)

Support in opinion polls: 13-15%

Polices & Beliefs:

  • Maximum income (100% tax on income over €360,000)
  • Lower the retirement age to 60
  • Allow the ECB to lend directly to the government
  • Nationalisation of energy companies
  • Investment in renewable energy
  • Leave NATO
  • Massively reform the EU or threaten to leave

Comment: Mélenchon is often described as far-left and has support from the French Communist Party and the Left Party. He is a strongly anti-establishment candidate and promises to fight the oligarchs if elected. He is much more critical of the EU than Hamon, promising a referendum between staying in a drastically reformed EU or leaving. He also wants to leave NATO and establish a 6th French Republic.

So, that’s a rough breakdown of the candidates. What’s interesting is that each candidate represents a distinct ideological group, in contrast to the trend towards centrism in recent years. Le Pen is the far-right, Fillon the Catholic right, Macron is a liberal centrist, Hamon a social democrat and Mélenchon a socialist. There are several ways to divide the candidates, issues like Europe and immigration (Le Pen & Fillon v Macron, Hamon & Mélenchon) or economics (where Le Pen and Mélenchon have surprisingly lot in common).

So far, it seems guaranteed that Le Pen will make the second round, with the only question being who will face her. The polls say that whoever faces her will almost certainly beat her. Initially it looked like this would be Fillon, leading some to worry that the second round would be between two anti-immigration and anti-EU candidates. However, Fillon has lost a lot of support due to his scandal.

If the two left wing candidates were to unite, there would be a strong chance of the Left reaching the second round, but they are too divided to achieve this. At the moment, it seems most likely that Macron will tie with (or be narrowly behind) Le Pen in the first round and then win 60-40 in the second round. As a centrist, he is best able to pull votes from both sides, whereas Len Pen has a much more limited appeal. A Macron victory would be seen as a victory for the EU at a time when it desperately needs one. Yet the Front national too will probably gain enough new support to claim victory and a large far-right vote (even without victory) would be very unsettling.


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