The Straits Times says

French voters at the crossroads

After a widely unpredictable campaign that has seen political fortunes swing endlessly, the French electorate are poised to vote in an election that is still regarded as too close to call.

Once, it was a sure bet that there'd be a face-off between National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who inherited her father's far-right party in 2011, and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker. Now, there is a surge from far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. The shooting of a policeman on the Champs Elysees on Thursday might also give the Republican Francois Fillon, whose once-fancied campaign has been hit by scandal, a boost if voters turn to a seasoned hand amid a security scare.

At 39, Mr Macron is the youngest of the pack but he comes without a party and with a perception of being privileged. The debating skills of Mr Melenchon, who is 65 years old, were amplified on television and caused the lift in his ratings. The young find him attractive and a draw. Meanwhile, the 48-year-old Ms Le Pen is tapping into sentiments against immigrants. Like Mr Melenchon, she threatens to take Europe's No. 2 economy out of the European Union.

What's clear from the process that produced this slate is that the status quo is no longer acceptable for many voters. The waves of immigration blamed on France's participation in the Schengen borderless travel arrangement, fear of the French way of life being disrupted or overwhelmed, a distaste for EU over-reach, and a host of other factors have contributed to a situation possibly best captured by a French word: ennui.

In this situation, even if a voter does not fully agree with a candidate, he may willy-nilly be forced to pick the best from a basket of poor options. For these reasons, an option that would not have seemed likely just three months ago is that the public may turn its eyes towards Ms Le Pen. The second round run-off next month could see her pitted against the centrist Mr Macron, who stands for globalisation and has praised his country's ethnic and cultural diversity.

Being anti-status quo, Ms Le Pen might have an advantage over the establishment-type Mr Macron. Like US President Donald Trump, Ms Le Pen taps into a wellspring of support from the working class and lower middle class, with whom unemployment is a huge issue. She has moderated the overt racism of her father's leadership of the National Front to a more nuanced approach to national identity that makes her more acceptable.

If elected, she's vowed to make repealing the Schengen visa arrangement the first order of business. At her final rally, she adopted a harder line and the crowd responded with chants of "France for the French". They might well learn to their peril that a road that leads into itself is one that goes nowhere.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'French voters at the crossroads'. Print Edition | Subscribe