The French presidential election takes place in two rounds. Candidates who gather enough official signatures qualify for the first ballot on April 23. If no candidate gets a majority in that vote (and no candidate ever has), the top two advance to a final vote on May 7.
- The economy: Unemployment remains around 10 percent, including about one-quarter of people under 25, and the country has struggled to recover from the 2008 financial crisis.
- Terrorism: More than 200 people have died in terrorist attacks since January 2015.
- Immigration: An increase in asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq and recent terrorist attacks have led to calls to limit immigration as well as rising Islamophobia.
- The European Union: One front-runner, nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, wants France to withdraw and promises a referendum on the country’s membership, while the other front-runner, former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, fervently supports the E.U.
France is “a country used to voting between right and left,” says Gino Raymond, professor of modern French studies at the University of Bristol, but as the April runoff approaches, the two leading candidates are the centrist Macron and the far-right Le Pen. Conservative François Fillon once was the front-runner along with Le Pen, but the former prime minister’s campaign has been rocked by accusations that he used fake staff positions to pay his wife and children nearly a million euros. (Now Le Pen, a deputy the European Parliament, faces a similar scandal, with accusations that her staff were paid for nonexistent jobs at the parliament.)
Current polling averages for the first round show Le Pen and Macron tied at 26 percent each, with Fillon trailing at 17 percent. Two other candidates — Socialist Benoît Hamon and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon — take 12 percent each. In the runoff, polls have both Macron and Fillon beating Le Pen comfortably; Macron would get around 60 percent of the vote against Le Pen, while Fillon would get 55 percent.
The Guesstimator asked experts on French politics for their observations and their guesstimates on the first-round winner and final result.
Gino Raymond: First-round winner: Le Pen, 30 percent; final results: Macron 60 percent, Le Pen 40 percent. Raymond argues that the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris remain traumatic, and the return from Syria and Iraq of hundreds of Islamic State fighters with French nationality amplifies anxiety. “France is the only leading liberal democracy functioning under a quasi-permanent state of emergency.” But Raymond also stresses the unpredictability: Polls “failed to predict Brexit and Trump” and scandal fatigue could lead many to choose none of the above.
Vivien Schmidt, director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Europe: First-round winner: Le Pen, 32 percent; final results: Macron 57 percent, Le Pen 43 percent. “Le Pen’s base is no more than 40 to 45 percent,” while Fillon and Macron are competing for a realigning electorate. Hurting Le Pen further is that the French are “appalled” by Trump. Finally, Schmidt notes, the “fake jobs” scandals facing Fillon and Le Pen will help Macron. If Fillon does survive the first round, Schmidt predicts Le Pen will pick up some votes from the left due to her strong defense of welfare and her anti-globalization stance.
Muriel Rouyer, professor of political science at the University of Nantes, France: First-round winner: Le Pen, 23 percent; final results: Macron 53 percent, Le Pen 47 percent. For Rouyer, the election represents an “historic break from old orthodoxies” and an “intense personalization” of politics. Le Pen benefits from embracing gender equality (hardly promoted by her father, movement founder Jean-Marie Le Pen). Macron, meanwhile, has overcome doubts about gravitas, projecting “change and hope, two currencies much in demand.”
Nino Saviano, founder and president of Savi Political Consulting: First-round winner: Le Pen, 27 percent; final results: Macron 57 percent, Le Pen 43 percent. Saviano notes a “growing level of populism and anti-establishment sentiment,” and Macron received a “strong boost” when centrist François Bayrou endorsed him. Saviano cautions that the race could change again: A new leftist alliance between Hamon and Mélenchon could reset matters, or a terrorist attack “could bolster support for candidates on the right, particularly for Le Pen.” And Macron’s campaign claims it has been targeted by Russia-sponsored hackers, which might mean “11th-hour surprises.”
Robert Gildea, professor of modern history at the University of Oxford: First-round winner: Le Pen, 27 percent; final results: Macron 58 percent, Le Pen 42 percent. “France is no longer a great power although, like Great Britain, it nurtures illusions of greatness. … It is also a deeply divided postcolonial society, with immigrants predominantly of North African and Muslim origin relegated to the banlieues [i.e. suburbs] with poor life chances.” Gildea is unimpressed with the mainstream conservative: “Fillon poses as a sort of French Margaret Thatcher, combining economic liberalism with moral conservatism and pledges to sack half a million public servants. But he has none of the Iron Lady’s charisma and now seems to have feet of clay.” Macron “is running as a post-modern candidate with a pick-and-mix agenda culled from focus groups.”
Philip Nord, who teaches modern French political and cultural history at Princeton University: First-round winner: Le Pen, 25 percent; final results: Macron 58 percent, Le Pen 42 percent. “A portion of the left will stay home, but a portion will also come out for him. He’ll win the center and elements of the moderate right.”
Dirk Olin, your Guesstimator: First-round winner: Macron, 26 percent; final results: Macron 60 percent, Le Pen 40 percent. As Sartre might say: “No Frexit.”