European elections countdown: In this first part of an occasional series, we take a look at what is at stake in the upcoming French elections. 

Election night in the United States may have been dramatic, but one thing was certain: The next president would either be a Republican or a Democrat. Third-party contenders obviously exist, but none had a serious chance of winning.

The same has long been true in France. Since the early 1980s, all French presidents have come from either the mainstream conservative or Socialist party. But that might change this year. None of the three politicians who are currently best positioned to win the election come from the mainstream parties — an indication of how much trust and influence they have lost over the past four years.

Centrist hopeful Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen are leading the polls. Macron had been a member of the Socialist Party but founded his own movement, En Marche! (Forward!), ahead of the campaign. Le Pen’s National Front has shaped French politics for decades but never as part of the government.

Depending on the poll, left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and conservative party candidate François Fillon currently come in third. But Mélenchon’s popularity appears to be rising among anti-establishment voters as his party takes a critical tone against German austerity — and embraces a slogan that advocates for an “unsubmissive France.”

Despite the top contenders’ ideological differences, one outcome is increasingly likely. The next French president will probably come from a party without experience governing the European Union’s second-largest nation — and without a clear majority in parliament.

A different approach

French broadcasters are obliged to give equal airtime to all presidential contenders in the final stages of the campaign. That’s not as smart as it may sound.

 As Donald Trump’s campaign started to gain momentum last year, cable news dedicated a steadily growing amount of time to him. Though it is difficult to define “coverage,” media measurement firm mediaQuant recently stated that Trump received free media worth $5.8 billion in advertisement money. Hillary Clinton received about half that, according to the firm.

That certainly will not happen in France, where public broadcasters are obliged by law to give the same airtime to all candidates in the final weeks of the campaign. Four dozen employees of France’s media supervisory authority monitor radio stations and TV broadcasters to measure the coverage down to seconds.

The “equal time” rule may appear like a smart way to prevent media bias, but it remains controversial in France. Critics argue the rule forces journalists to cover comments by marginal candidates the same way as remarks by the leading contenders. In a campaign dominated by scandals, giving equal airtime may not be in the best interest of the public after all.

Worst week in Paris

Marine Le Pen, far-right presidential candidate

Le Pen drew criticism from all sides for saying last Sunday that France was “not responsible” for deporting Jews during the Holocaust.

Her comments referred to July 16-17, 1942, when French police deposited about 13,000 Jews from Paris in an indoor stadium called “Vel d’Hiv.” Many of them were later deported to Auschwitz. The direct responsibility of French police — rather than German occupying forces — is an eternal stain on French history and national memory, as The Post’s James McAuley explained.

To her critics, Le Pen’s remarks revealed the true face of the National Front, which was founded in the early 1970s by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.” Marine Le Pen has tried to distance herself from him to make the National Front more appealing to a wider range of voters.

Best week in Paris

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing presidential candidate

Only days ago, Mélenchon lagged behind the front-runners. Now, in a dramatic shift, he has become the hopeful of left-wing voters as the mainstream Socialist party candidate, Benoît Hamon, remains far behind.

There are several reasons for Mélenchon’s sudden surge in the polls, including a message that resonates with many voters in rural France who feel neglected by mainstream parties but continue to believe in left-wing ideals.