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What you need to know about the French presidential election on April 23

This Sunday, April 23, French voters will go to the polls for the first round of their presidential election. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff election on May 7. Here’s what you need to know:

Who are the candidates?

In alphabetical order, the candidates are:

François Fillon: The 63-year-old candidate of the center-Right Les Républicains served as prime minister of France from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he defeated in his party's presidential primary.

Marine Le Pen. The 48-year-old leads the National Front (FN), a populist and nationalist party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972. She is currently a Member of European Parliament (MEP).

Emmanuel Macron. The 39-year-old front-runner founded his “En Marche!” (“On Our Way”) political party just one year ago. Before serving as economy minister for outgoing socialist President François Hollande, Macron spent four years as an investment banker for Rothschild & Co., a fact he touts in his stump speeches.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The 65-year-old leads the far-Left party La France Insoumise (shortened as “FI,” often translated in English “France Unbowed”). Mélenchon joined the Socialist Party in 1976, supervised vocational education from 2000 to 2002 for socialist President Lionel Jospin, and is presently an MEP.

What do the candidates believe?

Fillon: Fillon is the rarest of politicians in France: an economic and social conservative (in the American sense). He openly admires Margaret Thatcher and would implement a series of economic reforms to revive a France he calls “bankrupt.”

"My fellow Frenchmen have told me, everywhere, they want to break away from a bureaucratic system which saps their energy," he said last November. Fillon would cut the budget by €110 billion over five years, in part by eliminating 500,000 public sector jobs. He would slash business taxes by €40 billion and individual taxes by €10 billion, and he'd abolish the “solidarity tax on wealth” (ISF) levied against anyone with assets of €1.3 million. To offset the cost, he would increase the VAT tax by two percent.

He would abolish France’s 35-hour work week and set a maximum of 48 hours a week. Public sector employees would be expected to work 39 hours a week. He would raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and reduce unemployment benefits. The nation’s labor code would be pared down from about 3,400 pages to 150.

Although skeptical of the EU, he would not withdraw from the European Union; instead he has called for the body to be reformed into a "Europe of nations."

Fillon supports quotas for immigration, saying France has a "right" to see "that foreigners accept its rules and customs."

Alone among the four leading candidates, Fillon has spoken openly of "our Christian heritage," as well as his personal Catholic faith. He opposes forced secularization. “There isn’t a religious problem in France,” Fillon has said. “There is a problem linked to Islam.”  Fillon wrote an entire book calling for global opposition to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. He would set immigration quotas and create 16,000 new prison cells for offenders. He led the fight against changing the legal definition of marriage and would block children’s access to pornography.

Although rebounding in the polls, he suspended his campaign on Friday after a Paris terror attack left a policeman dead.

Website: https://www.fillon2017.fr/

Platform (in French): https://www.fillon2017.fr/projet/

Marine Le Pen. After squeezed her father out of FN’s leadership – and with him, a coterie of Holocaust deniers and open racists – Marine Le Pen has given the National Front a more respectable image focused strongly on political and economic nationalism. “The divide is not between the Left and Right anymore, but between patriots and globalists,” she said in February.

She has dubbed herself “Madam Frexit” over her call for a national referendum on France’s departure from the European Union and wishes to withdraw from the Euro. She would partially withdraw from NATO. She would allow a national referendum on any issue that obtains the signatures of 500,000 people on a petition.

Immigration remains a distinctive issue for Le Pen. She would limit immigration to 10,000 people a year and deport all illegal immigrants. She has called for assimilation for would-be French citizens. She has vowed “to close all extremist mosques,” increase the number of judges, and make 40,000 new prison cells available to jail domestic extremists.

Her economic program calls for “intelligent protectionist measures” to shield domestic industries from “unfair foreign competition.” Her industrial policy sees "the State acting as the strategist in order to give preference to the real economy over speculative finance,” and providing "preferential interest rates" for small businesses. She would maintain subsidies for French farmers, impose tariffs against non-French farmers, and ban “factory farms.” She would ban GMOs and fracking.

Le Pen would reduce taxes on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from 33 to 24 percent and cut the lowest three brackets by 10 percent. She would maintain the ISF tax on wealth but opposes a VAT increase.

However, Le Pen promises “to guarantee the welfare state” by maintaining the 35-hour work week. She would reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60, provided someone had contributed to the system for 40 years. She has vowed to implement pro-natalist policies reinstating the universal family allowance and COLA indexing. She opposes privatization of railways.

She, too, wishes to cut bureaucracy. She would reduce the number of MPs and senators by almost half, reduce the number of administrative levels of government from six to three, and empower lower levels of government.

She supports public funding for abortion and imposed secularization of schools and public life, which she uses mostly as a cudgel against the nation's Muslim population. But in January, when Fillon said, "I am a Christian," Le Pen responded that his words were "contrary to the principle of laïcité" - the revolutionary French idea separating the state from Catholic influence - "and contrary to our values."

Website: https://www.marine2017.fr

Platform (translated into English): https://www.marine2017.fr/2017/02/24/ludovic-de-danne-the-144-presidential-commitments-of-marine-pen/

Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s policies are described as center-Left and eclectic. He would maintain the retirement age and the 35-hour work week.

He would cut the budget by €60 billion cut over five years by eliminating 120,000 public sector employees through attrition. He has said he would reduce the number of elected officials. He would also inject a €50 billion stimulus into green energy over five years.

Macron strongly supports EU membership and influence, indicating he would play hardball over the terms of Brexit.

He would reduce overall taxes by €20 billion, slashing corporate taxes from 33.3 percent to 25 percent and applying the ISF wealth tax only to property. He backs a 30 percent capital gains tax. He has said he would allow greater negotiation between employers and employees.

His “Buy European Act” would deny government contracts to companies that did not base at least half their operations in Europe.

He would expand the welfare state by making the self-employed and those who quit their jobs voluntarily eligible for the nation’s generous unemployment benefits.

Macron opposes immigration quotas, said France should accept refugees whose lives are at risk, and that Europe "must get used to mass immigration." He praised German Chancellor Angela Markel, saying she shared "common values" and "saved our collective dignity" by accepting large numbers of refugees. "No religion is a problem in France," he has said.

Website: https://en-marche.fr/

Platform (in French): https://en-marche.fr/emmanuel-macron/le-programme

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélechon, who is supported by the Communist Party, is the hard-Left alternative to Macron. His support has doubled in the last month. A millionaire with at least two homes, he openly admires Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Robespierre. Mélechon has said France should strike a "Bolivarian alliance" with Cuba, Venezuela, and align itself with Iran and Syria. Campaign operative Sophia Chikiou – who embedded in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign – sought to reassure the public, saying, “If we come to power tomorrow, it will not be the gulag!"

Mélechon supports a national referendum to exit the EU, because he believes it has been unduly corrupted by free market principles. If international organizations will not renegotiate their terms, he would withdraw from the EU, NATO, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank.

His economic platform calls for widespread state regulation, intervention, and redistribution of wealth. He would impose a 100 percent tax rate on incomes over €400,000 and limit CEO pay. He would reduce the work week to 32 hours while increasing the minimum wage 16 percent. He would lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 and make it all-but-impossible for employers to fire employees. He would give workers additional vacation time. He opposes all free trade agreements and would reimpose tariffs and nationalize utilities.

Under Mélechon, the wealth tax would become more progressive, with higher taxes upon those with greater assets. He has boasted that his “universal tax” is “not worth fleeing. There will be tax agents even in Hell.”

He would increase spending by €173 billion over five years. He wants to replace nuclear energy, which provides 40 percent of the nation’s power, and transition to 100 percent green energy by 2050.

On immigration, Mélenchon opposes quotas limiting the overall number of new immigrants. He supports family reunification, generally wants to legalize the nation's population of illegal immigrants, and close down retention or deportation centers.

Mélechon would make housing a constitutional right and require nine months of compulsory national service, including military training.

Website: http://melenchon.fr/

Platform (in French): https://avenirencommun.fr/avenir-en-commun/

How has scandal affected the race?

Fillon seemed the odds-on favorite to win the presidency until he was indicted over allegations that he gave his Welsh wife, Penelope, and two of his five children jobs costing taxpayers more than $1.08 million (U.S.), for which they seemingly performed no work. (Marine Le Pen may also be indicted for tweeting graphic images of ISIS murders.)

Have American politicians weighed in on the election?

President Trump has not weighed in publicly, but tweeted early Friday morning that the terrorist attack “will have a big effect” on the election. Later that day, he said Marine Le Pen was "strongest on borders." Meanwhile, former President Obama made a phone call on Thursday to Emmanuel Macron, to offer election advice. Obama’s spokesman, Kevin Lewis, said the ex-president sees France as “a leader on behalf of liberal values in Europe and around the world.” Macron responded by tweeting, “Let's keep defending our progressive values.” 

Who is likely to win?

The latest poll, released Friday, shows the four candidates clustered closely: Emmanuel Macron would win 24 percent of the vote. Marine Le Pen would finish second with 21.5 percent. François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon poll at 20 and 19.5 percent, respectively. Between a quarter and one-third of voters are still undecided.

The second round of voting seems certain. If Macron prevails, polls show him winning by as much as 65 percent over some of his opponents next month.

If somehow Le Pen and Mélenchon were to face off, it would significantly undermine the EU. It’s doubtful that the European Union, as constituted, could survive the threat of losing two of its three most powerful members.

(Photo credit: Elliott Brown. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.