WORLD FOCUS

Election fever grips France

The presidential polls taking place on Sunday are shaping up to be anything but ordinary

PARIS • With days to go before the election on Sunday, campaigning is under way in earnest for France's presidential election: Metal hoardings have been erected outside public buildings and feature posters with the faces of 11 candidates vying for a sojourn in the Elysee palace.

The rallies are more frequent, too, bringing entire districts of Paris, and other cities, to a standstill as the hopefuls give stump speeches to adulating crowds.

Despite fierce competition, the mood remains calm but tense. Still, there is no question that this is not an ordinary election, and wearing the badge of the outsider has become essential for the candidates.

Anyone who thinks that discussing politics at the dinner table is impolite would get a shock in France: These days little else is talked about. And although political arguments have long been more acceptable than in Anglophone countries, French discussions are more frantic than usual.

In truth, the campaign has been under way for two years. Rocked by three major terrorist attacks since 2015, the country is also battling a stagnant economy and high unemployment, as well as tensions over immigration and integration.

Echoing United States President Donald Trump's move from the margins to the mainstream, the election has been dominated by the idea that a new force is needed to reinvigorate France, with only the conservative Francois Fillon appearing a traditional politician.

  • The key candidates

  • JEAN-LUC MÉLENCHON, 65

    France Unbowed

    Far left

    He left the Socialists to form his own party, and is now on his second run for president.

    Latest poll ratings*: 19.5%

    BENOIT HAMON, 49

    Socialist Party

    Centre-left

    The former education minister beat Prime Minister Manuel Valls to win the party primary.

    Latest poll ratings*: 7.8%

    EMMANUEL MACRON, 39

    On the Move!

    Centre

    The former economy minister created his party over a year ago and has never been elected to office.

    Latest poll ratings*: 22.8%

    FRANCOIS FILLON, 63

    The Republicans

    Centre right

    Scandals over putting relatives on the public payroll have crippled the former front runner.

    Latest poll ratings*: 19.5%

    MARINE LE PEN, 48

    National Front

    Far Right

    She modernised the party after taking over from her father but retained his anti-immigrant views.

    Latest poll ratings*: 22.5%

    * As of April 14

    SOURCE: BLOOMBERG PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

And even he promises root-and-branch reform of public finances, favouring a free market approach and threatening to fight the powerful civil service.

Into this febrile mix has stepped Ms Marine Le Pen, leader of France's right-wing National Front, who promises a mixture of French classic state largesse tempered by a strident anti-immigration message.

Long considered unfit for government, Ms Le Pen has sought to purge her party of its far-right and anti-Semitic reputation, going so far as to expel the party founder - her own father, Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen. The move has been largely successful, though she took flak last week for claiming France was "not responsible" for the deportations of Jews to death camps during the World War II Nazi occupation.

Ms Le Pen does not have the field to herself, however, and is currently neck and neck in the polls with the fresh face of French centrism, independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.

In a nod to the populist mood, media darling Macron, who leads the newly formed En Marche (On the Move) group, insists his movement (which shares his initials) is not a political party.

Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron are polling at around 23 per cent each. If these figures hold up in Sunday's vote, the pair will face off in the May 7 run-off poll.

Their platforms could not be more different, though, with the 39-year-old centrist appealing to support for the EU and globalism - the very betes noires of nationalist Le Pen. Mr Macron also advocates market-oriented economic reform, in stark contrast to Ms Le Pen, who positions herself as the true inheritor of France's state-oriented Gaullist tradition.

Strikingly, both of France's traditional parties appear to be in an advanced state of decay, with neither predicted to make it to the second round.

One late surprise has been the rise of far-left candidate, Mr Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11 per cent in the 2012 presidential election.

After a strong performance in televised debates, the perennial outsider is now polling at 19 per cent, ahead of both the Socialists and Republicans, placing him third, with conservative Republican party candidate Fillon fourth - though some polls reverse their positions.

Mr Benoit Hamon of the governing Socialist party trails a distant fifth in the field of 11.

"Both are in disarray for different reasons: the Socialists because of their utter inability to reform themselves and accept a social-liberal tendency within their ranks; the Republicans because of the bad luck that is Fillon's turmoil," said Ms Laetitia Strauch-Bonart, author of Vous Avez Dit Conservateur? (You Said Conservative?), a book on French conservatism.

"Without the latter, the Republicans would have had a candidate who would meet the aspirations of French conservative people, who more or less embrace a liberal-conservative stance on many issues. The question is: What will happen to the Republicans if Fillon loses?"

The Socialist party is bleeding votes both to the centrist Macron and leftist Melenchon, while centre-right Fillon has seen support slide since becoming engulfed by a scandal that he put his wife on the state payroll as a parliamentary assistant despite her allegedly never working there.

The volatility, not to mention the shocks of the US presidential election and British Brexit vote, means commentators are cautious.

Ms Caroline Fourest, a feminist author and radio presenter, is hoping to see a repeat of the 2002 election, when the left and right came together - through gritted teeth - and voted for the only candidate (Mr Jacques Chirac) who could defeat the then leader of the National Front, Mr Le Pen.

"Most of the French won't vote for the candidate we prefer but for the one who can block Marine Le Pen," she told The Straits Times.

"If we avoid National Front this time, with the risk of terrorist attacks, I think we can say that we have avoided it for good," said Ms Fourest, who formerly worked for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, 12 of whose staff were murdered in an attack by Islamist terrorists in January 2015.

"I was for Fillon, but how can I take him seriously with these allegations? It's not good, so now I am looking at Melenchon," said Paris resident Claire over dinner in an Italian restaurant in the up-and-coming 20th arrondissement of Paris.

What is most surprising about her comment is that she was supporting a conservative candidate who planned to sack a million civil servants and radically change the French economy with a dose of harsh, free market medicine, but is now considering voting for a communist-backed candidate.

Whoever France votes for, there is no question that change is coming: Between Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon alone, almost half of French voters are likely to plump for an anti-European Union candidate in the first round. So even if Mr Macron wins the day, there is no question of a return to politics as usual.

"We are all holding our breath," said Ms Fourest.


What voters want

MS SABINE THOLONIAT, 33

Cheese-maker, mother of four, in the Puy-de-Dome area of central France.

"I want the president to tackle the issue of agriculture and defend producers to the very end. I'd like him or her to order that French products have to be used nationally in state-run canteens. Things are improving, but not quickly enough. We don't want to live on subsidies, we want fair prices. In 2016, we were paid 27 euro cents (40 Singapore cents) a litre for milk, while in big supermarkets, consumers pay about 60 cents."

MS VERONIQUE BARTHE, 49

Wine-maker, divorced mother of three who lives in Gironde, south-western France.

"I would like our next president to enjoy wine, defend recognised French products and work with Europe to put in place trade agreements with countries like Japan and China that would boost our business. A lot of work is being done in rural areas to understand the impact of our craft on the environment. Responsible wine-growers like us should be encouraged and receive help."

MR ERIC LAURENT, 48

CEO of Eznov, maker of a simplified automated drone, employing seven people, married with two children, lives in Rambouillet, outside Paris.

"He needs to be pragmatic and make our lives easier.

"In France, we have very good ideas, but almost all start-ups end up getting sold to foreign companies. We are good at first when it comes to designing the engine and engaging first gear, but when it's time to shift to second gear, it's so difficult... We could get rid of the thousands of different subsidies that are too complicated for small businesses to request anyway."

MS JEANNE LEPERS, 29

Actress and writer, single, lives in Paris.

"Politicians don't really care about culture. They think they have to praise it because it is politically correct to do so, but they don't believe that it can help us understand the world, and how to live together.

"We should give more support to local initiatives that create a social bond, like small festivals and groups that do great work in high-rise suburbs. Broadly speaking, I expect a president to provide meaning and set out a vision for the country."

MR JEAN-LOUP TIESSET, 54

Owns a cafe-restaurant in Calais, near the former migrant camp in northern France.

"My first wish would be that the next president harnesses the services of the state to change the taxes on businesses, especially our social security charges. As for the migrant crisis, the president should get in touch with neighbouring countries to ensure that the people of Calais no longer find themselves in the situation they have been in for the past 10 years. It's not right that British immigration checks take place on our soil. It's up to England to welcome migrants and manage the migrant flow that the country attracts."

MR ADAM MERSIT, 20

Studying for a physics and chemistry degree at Rennes 1 university in western France.

"The most important thing is that the president gives power back to the people because we're no longer being heard. Even when we protest, we're not listened to. I want the next president to repeal the (new) labour law... I also want the president to hold referendums and get the French interested in politics. There is not a single young person in the National Assembly despite the fact that people have a very different view of the world depending on their age. I don't see why someone of 30 is less important than a 50-year-old."

MR GILDAS LAMETTE, 39

Waiter in a cafe, single with no children, lives in Rennes in north-west France.

"He or she must set an example. There can't be any scandals resurfacing... The president must remain independent from lobbies as much as possible. What seems most important to me is making environmental commitments because the environment will lead to new technologies, new jobs and added value.

"I hope the new president will be clear-headed and shut down nuclear plants, which Francois Hollande was not able to do. Our commitment, as citizens, and our future on this planet are at stake."

MS SOLANGE DESAGHER, 47

Researcher on cell biology at a state-funded facility in Montpellier in southern France, married with two children.

"The president should support basic research, which can lead to big discoveries, by providing more funding for long-term programmes and commissioning fewer short-term projects. It is also important to support young scientists, by turning ad hoc contracts into permanent jobs in universities and research facilities, and employing them in senior civil service roles and in business.

MR FREDERIC JULLIEN, 44

Mountain guide, with two children, lives in the Alps.

"The next president should start a green revolution. The next head of state should put in place a programme to reduce energy consumption, develop renewables and promote clean engines that have taken a back seat to diesel for 20 years, although the technology does exist. Pollution travels. This winter, pollution coming from Turin in Italy crossed the Alps into France. We also have water and soil pollution. I want a president who dares to innovate instead of implementing micro changes."

MR ROMAIN GUERINEAU, 31

Fireman, single with one child, in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire in central France.

"(I want the president) to implement the law on increasing accessibility for disabled people that was voted in in 2005 but still hasn't been applied, as well as introduce better reimbursements for handicapped people. A wheelchair costs €5,000 (S$7,400) but only €558 of that is reimbursed... I want policies from the next president that are social-based but not handouts. He should be beyond reproach, stick to his campaign promises and remain accessible to the people even after the elections."

MS MOUSLIMATI BOINA-MZE, 24

No children, going through a divorce, at her school in Marseille, southern France, where she is undergoing training at a college for people who have left school without qualifications.

"What I want from the new president is that he help young people to find work easily. It's hard, it really is. Today, even if you leave school with qualifications, you can find only a job that is badly paid or demotivating... What the new president needs to do is improve information for young people. Many people don't even know that there are local training centres for them. They stop everything and it's a shame.


PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MR JEAN-YVES TANGUY, 60

Stringed instrument maker, married and father of three, at his workshop in Caen, Normandy.

"I am hoping for him to recognise the importance of culture in a world dominated by the market and the cynicism of finance. Because culture allows us to lift humanity to a higher plane. I want him to develop the practice of music collectively because it's such a fabulous tool for integration. Through music, one can find dignity and a raison d'etre in society. I want him to harness his power for the good of justice, including social justice. That he fights segregation, exclusion and hate with all his might."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Election fever grips France'. Print Edition | Subscribe