Voters in France will go to the polls on April 23 to choose the country's next president in a two-step process. The top two winners in the first round will compete in a run-off on May 7.
The election is being closely followed in France and elsewhere as an indicator of popular discontent with mainstream parties and the European Union, as well as with multiculturalism and continued mass migration from the Muslim world.
If the election were held today, independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who has never held elected office, would become the next president of France, according to most opinion polls.
An Ifop-Fiducial poll released on April 21 showed that Macron would win the first round with 24.5% of the votes, followed by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-establishment National Front party, with 22.5%. Conservative François Fillon is third (19.5%), followed by Leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon (18.5%) and radical Socialist Benoît Hamon (7%).
If the poll numbers are accurate, the two established parties, the Socialist Party and the center-right Republicans, would, for the first time, be eliminated in the first round.
In the second round, Macron, a pro-EU, pro-Islam globalist, would defeat Le Pen, an anti-EU, anti-Islam French nationalist, by a wide margin (61% to 39%), according to the poll.
Nevertheless, most polls show that the race is tightening, and that two candidates who up until recently were considered also-rans — Fillon, who has been mired in a corruption scandal, and Mélenchon, who has performed well in recent presidential debates — are narrowing the lead that Macron and Le Pen have over them.
An Elabe poll for BMFTV and L'Express released on April 21 showed Macron at 24%, Le Pen at 21.5%, Fillon at 20% and Mélenchon at 19.5%.
The numbers indicate that neither Macron nor Le Pen can be absolutely certain they will proceed to the May 7 runoff. It remains to be seen if the April 20 jihadist attack on three policemen in Paris will bolster support for either Fillon or Le Pen, both of whom have pledged to crack down on radical Islam, and both of whom are competing for many of the same voters. Adding to the uncertainty: Some 40% of French voters remain undecided.
Following are the main policy positions of the top five candidates:
Macron, 39, a former investment banker, was an adviser to incumbent Socialist President François Hollande. If elected, he would be France's youngest president. A long-time member of the Socialist Party, Macron served in Hollande's cabinet for two years as economy minister until August 2016, when he resigned to launch his own political movement, En Marche! (On the move!).
Macron, whose core base of support consists of young, urban progressives, has been called the "French Obama." He insists that he is neither left nor right and has tried to position himself in the political center, between the Socialists and the conservatives — and as an alternative to Le Pen's populism.
Macron is business friendly and has called for cutting corporate taxes and for investing in infrastructure. He sparked outrage in February when he described France's colonial legacy in Algeria as a "crime against humanity."
His meteoric rise has been propelled by a scandal which has damaged the standing of Republican candidate François Fillon, and because the Socialists fielded Benoît Hamon, an unpopular candidate.
Macron's policy positions (platform here) include:
European Federalism: Macron has repeatedly called for a stronger European Union. At a January 14 political rally in Lille, he said: "We are Europe, we are Brussels, we wanted it and we need it. We need Europe because Europe makes us bigger, because Europe makes us stronger."
Immigration: Macron has repeatedly praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door migration policy, which has allowed more than two million mostly Muslim migrants into Germany since January 2015.
In a January 1, 2017 interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Macron accused critics of Merkel's open-door migration policy of "disgraceful oversimplification." He said: "Merkel and German society as a whole exemplified our common European values. They saved our collective dignity by accepting, accommodating and educating distressed refugees."
In a February 4 rally in Lyon, Macron mocked U.S. President Donald Trump's pledge to build a wall with Mexico: "I do not want to build a wall. I can assure you there is no wall in my program. Can you remember the Maginot Line?" he said, referring to a failed row of fortifications that France built in the 1930s to deter an invasion by Germany.
Islamic Terrorism: Macron has said he believes the solution to jihadist terrorism is more European federalism: "Terrorism wants to destroy Europe. We must quickly create a sovereign Europe that is capable of protecting us against external dangers in order to better ensure internal security. We also need to overcome national unwillingness and create a common European intelligence system that will allow the effective hunting of criminals and terrorists."
Islam: Macron has said he believes that French security policy has unfairly targeted Muslims and that "secularism should not be brandished to as a weapon to fight Islam." At an October 2016 rally in Montpellier, he rejected President Hollande's assertion that "France has a problem with Islam." Instead, Macron said: "No religion is a problem in France today. If the state should be neutral, which is at the heart of secularism, we have a duty to let everybody practice their religion with dignity." He also insisted that the Islamic State is not Islamic: "What poses a problem is not Islam, but certain behaviors that are said to be religious and then imposed on persons who practice that religion."
Marine Le Pen
Le Pen, 48, a former lawyer and the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front party, has campaigned on a nationalist platform. She has called for a referendum on pulling France out of the European Union, abandoning the euro single currency, halting immigration and restore controls at French borders.
Le Pen, who has been called the "French Trump," has vowed to fight radical Islam, close extremist mosques and forcibly deport illegal immigrants.
On March 2, the European Parliament voted to lift Le Pen's immunity from prosecution for tweeting images of Islamic State violence. Under French law, publishing violent images can be punished by up to three years in prison and a fine of €75,000 euros ($79,000). Le Pen posted the images in response to a journalist who compared her party's anti-immigration stance to the Islamic State. She denounced the legal proceedings against her as political interference in the campaign and called for a moratorium on judicial investigations until the election period has passed.
Le Pen is also under investigation for allegedly misusing EU funds to pay for party staff, including a personal bodyguard. She has denied any wrongdoing and said the investigation was aimed at undermining her campaign. "The French can tell the difference between genuine scandals and political dirty tricks," she said.
Le Pen's policy positions (platform here) include:
European Federalism: "Everyone agrees that the European Union is a failure. It did not deliver on any of its promises, particularly on prosperity and security.... That is why, if elected, I will announce a referendum within six months on remaining or exiting the European Union..."
Immigration: Le Pen has said that she wants to cut immigration to no more than 10,000 people a year. She has also called on migrants to adapt to French culture: "Those who come to France are to accept France, not to transform it to the image of their country of origin. If they want to live at home, they should have stayed at home."
Islamic Terrorism: Le Pen has repeatedly vowed to crack down on Islamic terrorism. On February 5, she said: "In terms of terrorism, we do not intend to ask the French to get used to living with this horror. We will eradicate it here and abroad." After the April 20 jihadist attack in Paris, she reiterated: "We must tackle the root of the evil. It is Islamist fundamentalism, the ideology that their terrorists are harnessing."
Islam: Le Pen has vowed to restrict the practice of Islam in the public square. She wants to ban all visible religious symbols worn in public, including Muslim headscarves and Jewish skullcaps. She has compared Muslims praying in the streets to Nazi occupation: "For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it is about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory. It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of districts in which religious laws apply. It is an occupation. There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents."
Fillon, 63, a former Prime Minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy and now the Republican candidate for France's 2017 presidential election, has pledged to defend traditional French values and identity. "This country is the daughter of Christianity, as well as the Enlightenment," Fillon has said. "I will put the family back at the heart of all public policy."
Fillon, who has been called the "French Thatcher" for his conservative policies, wants to end France's 35-hour work week, cut public spending by €100 billion ($107 billion), shrink the size of government by cutting 500,000 civil service positions, abolish a wealth tax and reduce immigration. He also wants to invest heavily in national security.
Fillon had been favored to win this race until he became the subject of a criminal investigation over allegations that he used government money to pay his wife and children more than €1 million ($1.1 million) for jobs they never did. He faces charges of embezzlement.
Fillon's policy positions (platform here) include:
European Federalism: Fillon has said that he is not in favor of more European integration. In an essay for Le Monde, he wrote: "Let's put aside the dream of a federal Europe. It is urgent to re-establish a more political functioning, so Europe can focus its action on well-defined strategic priorities."
Immigration: Fillon has called for quotas limiting immigration based on the capacity to integrate. At a rally in Nice on January 11, he said: "France is generous, but it is not a mosaic and a territory without limits. It is one nation that has a right to choose who can join it and a right that foreigners accept its rules and customs. We have six million unemployed and nearly nine million poor people. Immigration must be firmly controlled and reduced to a strict minimum."
Islam: Fillon has vowed to exert "strict administrative control" over Islam in France. He has also described radical Islam as a "totalitarianism like the Nazis." After the April 20 jihadist attacks, Fillon repeated his pledge to crack down on radical Islam. "Any movement claiming Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood will be dissolved," he said.
Mélenchon, 65, is head of the newly-established La France Insoumise ("Unsubmissive France"), a political movement supported by the Left Party and the French Communist Party. Mélenchon, who has been called the "French Bernie Sanders," has campaigned on an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization platform and vowed to put an end to "economic liberalism." He has called for a massive increase in public spending, a 90% tax on anyone earning more than €400,000 ($425,000) a year, and an across-the-board increase in the minimum wage by 16% to €1,326 ($1,400) net a month, based on a 35-hour work week.
Mélenchon's policy positions (platform here) include:
European Federalism: Mélenchon has pledged to redefine France's future relationship with the European Union. He has promised to negotiate a "democratic reconstruction" of European treaties, and to withdraw from the EU if it fails to meet his demands. "Europe, we'll change it or leave it," he said during an interview with France 2 television on April 7. He has also questioned France's continued use of the euro single currency.
Immigration: Mélenchon is opposed to immigration quotas. He called for undocumented workers to be legalized. He has called for re-establishing a ten-year residence permit for foreigners, and for all children born in France to obtain automatic citizenship.
Hamon, 49, the Socialist Party nominee, was a former education minister under President Hollande but quit the government in protest of its pro-market policies. Although he defeated former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a party heavyweight, in the primary run-off on January 29 by a margin of 58% to 42%, he is now polling last among the top five candidates.
Hamon has promised to establish a universal basic income: he wants to pay every French citizen over 18, regardless of whether or not they are employed, a government-guaranteed monthly income of €750 ($800). The annual cost to taxpayers would be €400 billion ($430 billion). By comparison, France's 2017 defense budget is €32.7 billion ($40 billion).
Hamon, who has been called the "French Jeremy Corbyn," in reference to the leader of the British Labour Party, also wants reduce the French work week from 35 to 32 hours and make it more difficult for companies to fire people. He wants to legalize cannabis and impose a tax on robots and computers; the tax would apply to any technology that takes away jobs from humans.
Hamon's policy positions (platform here) include:
European Federalism: Hamon favors further European integration, especially on social issues. He has also called for "a process of social convergence with a national minimum wage set at 60% of each country's average wage." He has also called for the reformation of eurozone governance. "Only a complete revision of the European treaties could give the eurozone an institutional framework capable of correcting the founding mistakes of the Economic and Monetary Union," he wrote in a policy paper.
Immigration: Hamon has said that France does not have an immigration problem. In an interview with Le Parisien, he said: "Immigrants now occupy low-skilled jobs for which there is little competition with French workers. I think our country does not have an immigration problem." Hamon favors "a more equitable" distribution of asylum seekers in Europe and believes that France can accommodate more. He wants to allow migrants to obtain work permits after three months of being present in France. He has called for doubling the number of asylum seeker reception centers.
Islam: Hamon has come under fire for appearing to turn a blind eye to Islamic customs. In December 2016, after France 2 broadcast undercover television footage of daily life in Sevran, a heavily Islamized suburb of Paris, Hamon defended the Muslim practice of prohibiting women from entering bars and cafés. "Historically, there were never women in the coffee shops," he said. He added that "the French Republic is to blame for the fact that there are social ghettos where today public spaces can be off limits to women."