French voters disappointed, undecided days before vote

A man walks past campaign posters of the 11 candidates who are running in the presidential election.
A man walks past campaign posters of the 11 candidates who are running in the presidential election. PHOTO: REUTERS

STRASBOURG, France (AFP) - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is too extreme, but centrist Emmanuel Macron is too young. Conservative Francois Fillon cannot be trusted, Socialist Benoit Hamon is the establishment, and Communist-backed radical Jean-Luc Melenchon, too risky.

Just a week before the French cast their first votes for the next president, this is how the many undecided voters view this year's cast of candidates: with abject disappointment.

Mr Marc Jaurena lives in the north-eastern city of Metz but drives nearly an hour to work in Luxembourg, 63km away.

"For me, working in Luxembourg, my job will be directly impacted by a Marine Le Pen election," Mr Jaurena said, as the far-right leader has pledged that, if elected, she will pull France out of the euro currency and hold a referendum on whether the country should leave the EU.

The 34-year-old said he has also been scandalised by the fake jobs scandals that have embroiled not only Ms Le Pen, but also Mr Fillon.

Mr Fillon's campaign has been rocked by multiple scandals over expenses and conflicts of interest, including allegations that he gave his wife suspected fake jobs as a parliamentary assistant, for which she was paid a total of 680,000 euros (S$1 million).

As for Ms Le Pen, the European Parliament has accused her far-right National Front (FN) of using funds allotted for parliamentary assistants to pay staff for party work in France. She has dismissed the investigation into FN's expenses, saying it is a plot to derail her campaign bid.

Mr Jaurena is also unmoved by the ethos of the Communist-backed eurosceptic Melenchon, and by what he called Mr Macron's "brainwashing".

"I know who I won't vote for, but I don't know who I'll vote for," he said.

'ROCKED BY SCANDALS'

He is among the nearly 40 per cent of voters who have yet to decide which way they'll vote - or even if they'll show up at on election day next Sunday (April 23).

"This election is unusual. The campaign is rocked by scandals," political scientist Richard Kleinschmager told AFP. "The situation has become too complex to get people engaged."

Voters' indecision has reinforced the uncertainty of this year's two-round presidential election, in which four candidates - Ms Le Pen, Mr Macron, Mr Melenchon and Mr Fillon - are neck-and-neck for the first round of voting.

Polls give each between 19 and 23 per cent of votes.

The top two candidates from that vote will go forward to the second-round run-off on May 7.

"For me, it's unclear," said 41-year-old Fabrice Blanchard, a commercial agent in Lorraine. "Macron, we don't know if he is of the right or the left". As for Hamon, "he is from the outgoing government", which has been marked by high unemployment and low growth.

Only 17 per cent of voters questioned in an Ipsos poll in February gave high marks to France's democratic system.

'OUTRAGED BY SCANDALS'

In the western city of Rennes, Pierre, 28, voted for then president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, but he is leaning towards Mr Macron this time around, "because he's young".

But for retired teacher Jeannette, 77, who is among the undecided voters, said Mr Macron is "too young".

"Undecided voters are a feature of this election," Mr Kleinschmager said. "Voters from the two major parties have been thoroughly weakened.

Francoise, the daughter of a former mayor in the eastern province of Franche-Comte, said she would have voted for Mr Fillon "if there hadn't been the scandals".

"Honesty in life and in politics, it's essential," the 54-year-old pharmaceutical worker said.

"My father was mayor of a town, and when I made copies at city hall, he took out money to pay for them. So then when we see the Fillon family... I am outraged by the scandals."

There is a danger in having so many undecided voters at this late stage, said Kleinschmager.

"The danger is when we don't know what to hold on to," he said. "So we grab a lottery ticket while telling ourselves 'why not'. That lottery ticket is Marine Le Pen."

An Ipsos poll for the daily Le Monde on Friday showed Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen - who have been neck-and-neck for weeks at the head of the pack - on 22 per cent for the first round.