French election wide open after weekend in which all candidates stumbled

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or Onwards!, and candidate for the 2017 presidential elections, attends a news conference on Feb 13, 2017.
Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or Onwards!, and candidate for the 2017 presidential elections, attends a news conference on Feb 13, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (Bloomberg) - France's election is wide open with just nine weeks to go after a weekend of stumbles that saw independent Emmanuel Macron ensnared by the country's colonial past and attempts to unite the left fizzle.

After earlier signalling they would consider a possible joint candidacy, Socialist Benoit Hamon and far-left campaigner Jean-Luc Melenchon ended up trading barbs rather than bridging their differences.

Melenchon went first, saying his rival's campaign was going nowhere and that he wasn't about to hitch a ride on a Socialist "hearse."

Hamon fired back, saying "I won't run after Melenchon, I don't run after anyone."

The weekend wasn't any kinder to anti-euro candidate Marine Le Pen and Republican Francois Fillon, who were both blown off course by persistent allegations that they misused public funds.

As a result, the at-least-four-way race for the presidency remains up for grabs.

"This weekend was an all-out, run-for-your-life affair," Yves-Marie Cann, head of political studies at pollster Elabe, said in phone interview.

"More than ever, this is a presidential election of unknowns."

Tie Up

Speculation that the left would unite under a single banner and eliminate Macron and Fillon roiled markets on Friday, sending France's 10-year yields up as much as 5 basis points before paring losses. Hamon and Melenchon may get another attempt to make nice this week when they are slated to meet.

"If a tie up between Hamon and Melenchon were to materialize, then this would be negative" for bonds, said Peter Chatwell, London-based head of interest-rates strategy at Mizuho International.

"As a combined force, they could eclipse both Fillon and Macron in the first round, leaving the second round to be a choice of two market-unfriendly candidates."

Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, secretary general of the Socialist Party, said that talks to unify the left would continue, but without sounding convinced.

"We have no choice but to get on to face the right and far-right, or else we are out of the second round," he said on France2 television.

The latest Ifop poll shows the National Front's Le Pen ahead with 26 per cent support. Macron and Fillon are tied for second place with about 18.5 per cent apiece. Hamon would get 14 per cent and Melenchon 11.5 per cent.

Candidates are looking for voters everywhere, even expatriates. After Algeria last week, Macron is in London Tuesday. Le Pen is in Lebanon, and Hamon was in Portugal over the weekend.

Le Pen, who would be France's first female president, is running on an anti-immigration platform. While she remains ahead for the initial ballot, polls have consistently projected that she would be defeated in the second round.

Macron, for his part, was attacked for comments he made during a visit to Algeria when he said that aspects of colonialism could be considered a crime against humanity.

Running for office for the first time in his career, Macron apologised on Saturday to the French citizens who left Algeria in 1962 - when the country gained its independence - though he didn't retract his comment and urged everyone to move on and "get along."

Le Pen meanwhile denied allegations by the European Union's fraud office that she gave her aides fake parliamentary jobs.

Fillon, who had promised he would quit the race if he was put under formal investigation over the employment of family members, backtracked on that pledge in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper.

In a recorded two-minute video message on his Facebook account released Sunday, Fillon told his voters "not to let themselves be intimidated by attacks or by the few protesters."