Here's a WorldViews guide on what to expect.
French voters may actually head to the polls four times this summer.
The first round of voting for France's next president will be Sunday. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote (with 11 candidates running, a very likely possibility), there will be a runoff between the two top candidates on May 7. Whoever wins the most votes in that round will be president.
Even then, however, the voting won't be over. There will also be an election to select the French Parliament in June — and this vote also has two rounds.
To win a seat in the National Assembly, a candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the vote on June 11, with a required minimum of 25 percent registered-voter turnout. Any races not reaching those thresholds will require a June 18 runoff.
Both the presidential and legislative elections will be essential moments in the future of France.
When should we know the results from the first round of the presidential election?
Most polling stations are due to close at 7 p.m. Paris time on Sunday, except for some big cities where polls will close at 8 p.m. Projections will be published shortly after polls close. French law bans the publication of exit polls before the end of voting, although foreign news organizations have published their own data.
Who are the candidates in the presidential race?
In total, 11 candidates have received approval to run in the election, having met the threshold of the sponsorship of 500 elected officials.
Of these 11, five are considered serious contenders:
- François Fillon of the Republicans: The 63-year-old is the candidate of France's largest center-right party, and he initially was deemed a front-runner. A former prime minister, Fillon presented himself as a traditional Catholic conservative in the face of a changing France, promising fiscal responsibility and stability. However, his chances of winning the presidency may have been dashed by allegations that he paid his wife and children 900,000 euros (about $948,000) of government money for work they never did.
- Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party: Hamon, 49, was chosen to lead the Socialists after the incumbent president, François Hollande, decided not to run for a second term. Hollande's decision, though unusual, wasn't a total surprise: His presidency has been marked by record unpopularity. Hamon has hoped to distinguish himself by proposing radical solutions such as a universal income, but few think that his platform stands a chance in this election.
- Marine Le Pen of the National Front: Perhaps the most high-profile figure in the race internationally, Le Pen could lead the party her father founded in 1972 to one of its best election results yet. Le Pen, 48, has struggled to move the National Front past its far-right core, and she has seen new support from young voters and female voters. Her policies include pulling out of the euro currency and major restrictions on immigration and free movement across borders.
- Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche! (Forward) movement: In the face of what initially seemed to be a polarized political landscape, Macron — a former investment banker who was educated at elite schools and became a Socialist economy minister — has managed to become the voice of “radical centrism.” The 39-year-old is hoping to become the youngest president in French history, and he aims to do so without the backing of a major party. He is at the top of many polls, with voters enticed by his moderate rhetoric and plans to lower taxes and expand health care, but critics argue that his policies may fail to entice embittered voters to the polls.
- Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the Unsubmissive France movement: The rise of a 65-year-old outspoken leftist in the polls might be one of the most surprising facets of this year's election. Mélenchon's platform shares some similarities with Le Pen's — most notably, his aversion to the European Union — but he doesn't strike the same anti-immigrant tones, and his vision of abolishing France's Fifth Republic political system, in place since 1958, is uniquely radical. Mélenchon is not backed by a major party.
What are the big issues for voters?
There are a number of intersecting issues for French voters this year. Below are four of the biggest:
- Economy: France is still feeling the aftereffects of the 2008 financial crisis. Unemployment hovers around 10 percent — higher than in most E.U. countries — and there is considerable anger at the inefficiency of the French state.
- Europe: Polls have shown that less than half of the French people have a positive view of the E.U. Even if France doesn't decide to leave the E.U., a Le Pen presidency could mean that the country pulls out of the euro — a move that could trigger a major financial crisis on the continent.
- Immigration: Some voters, most notably supporters of Le Pen, are motivated by the levels of immigration to France and want to impose some limits on legal immigration and free movement under the Schengen Agreement.
- Security: Since January 2015, more than 230 people have been killed by terrorist plots in France. Many in France hope new leadership may help deal with this problem.
What are the polls saying about who might win?
France's two-round system, making sense of the polls requires a little extra thought.
Many of the polls for first-round voting give Macron and Le Pen a slight edge. However, Fillon and Mélenchon are not far behind, often close enough that a margin of error could explain their coming out on top. Of the five main contenders, only Hamon is trailing far behind at this point.
No candidate is expected to receive more than 50 percent of the first-round vote. (This isn't unusual in French presidential elections — no candidate has won that much of the vote under the current system.) That means a runoff vote is likely to be held.
And while you might expect the top vote-getter in the first round to emerge as the winner in the second, that doesn't always happen: In 1974, 1981 and 1995, the candidate who placed second in the first round became president after the runoff.
There will probably be a lot of tactical voting in the second round, especially if Le Pen makes it through. Polls suggest that she would lose by a large margin against either Macron, Fillon or Mélenchon — a somewhat similar situation to 2002, when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round but lost in a landslide to Jacques Chirac (who received 82.2 percent of the vote).
Most polls show Macron coming out on top, no matter whom he faces in the second round. However, a lot could change before the second round takes place.
What about the parliamentary elections?
It's important not to forget that just a few weeks after the presidential election, the French will vote for their parliamentary representation. Whoever wins the presidency will later have to appoint a prime minister from the winner of those elections.
The French president, while more powerful than many of his European peers, still must depend on a prime minister and Parliament to manage the country's day-to-day affairs.
For a president, the ideal situation is to have your party control the Parliament during your term, but it often doesn't work out that way. When different parties control the executive and legislative branches of government — the French call it “cohabitation” — there can be serious friction.
This year, the situation is even more complicated. Of the top five candidates, three (Macron, Le Pen and Mélenchon) do not operate with the support of a major party. Even Fillon faces a similar risk: His Republican party is seriously divided, and he may have to face down his parliamentary colleagues on some issues. Whatever the outcome, legislative gridlock is likely.
So, what's the big story of the election?
Right now, that's hard to say.
Many outside France look at Le Pen's popularity and see it as the latest in a string of events — including Britain's vote to leave the E.U. and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president — that reflect an antiglobalist resurgence in the political right.
It is hard to deny that Le Pen is capturing a moment: The National Front has seen a surge in popularity since she took over from her father, and Le Pen has notably broadened the party's appeal to include more women and young people.
At the same time, things aren't quite that simple.
For one thing, few are predicting a Le Pen presidency, thanks in large part to the way the French election system is set up.
A story that may be even more important is the fragmentation of the French political system. The two main French political parties — the Republicans and the Socialists — are struggling this year for two very different reasons. Fillon, has been seriously tarnished by corruption allegations, while the record unpopularity of Hollande is a big factor in Hamon's slim odds.
The net result is the same: A growing lack of trust in the mainstream parties is leading voters to look for alternatives. In some cases, the alternative may be the far right, and in others, the far left.