French election: Voters go to polls in unpredictable contest

Top two finishers will advance to runoff in May to decide country’s next president

Lara Marlowe looks at the candidates for the French presidential election and how they would impact the future of the European Union

 

Voting is under way in the first round of an unpredictable French presidential election whose outcome could prove crucial for the future of a deeply divided country and a nervous European Union.

Less than two days after a gunman shot dead a policeman on the Champs-Elysees in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, France’s 47 million registered voters - nearly a quarter of whom are still undecided - go to the polls amid heightened security.

The top two finishers from the 11 candidates in the first round will advance to a runoff on May 7th to decide the next president after a tense and tight election dominated by the economy, jobs, immigration and national identity.

With campaigning banned on Saturday, Friday’s final polls showed the four leading candidates - independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, scandal-hit conservative François Fillon and hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon - so close that any two could go through.

The poll is widely seen as a litmus test for the strength of a populist, nativist and anti-establishment wave that produced the twin shocks of the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US, and could also be decisive for the future of the EU.

Both Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon have said they want to radically renegotiate France’s relationship with Europe and could hold referendums on a French exit from the bloc. Ms Le Pen also wants to quit the euro and restore the franc.

Financial markets are already nervous about the vote’s outcome, fearing capital flight or defaults should the far right or far left triumph. France holds two rounds of legislative elections in June, however, and without a parliamentary majority, any new president’s powers would in practice be limited.

Mr Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister who says he is neither right nor left but wants to reboot France’s failed political system, is a fervent pro-European whose victory would be cheered in Brussels. Mr Fillon, a socially conservative former prime minister whose campaign was hit by a “fake jobs” scandal involving his British-born wife Penelope, has promised Thatcher-style shock economic reforms. He too is committed to EU unity.

High turnout

France’s overseas territories and French residents in the US and Canada voted on Saturday so as not to be influenced by the results of the election on the mainland, which will be known on Sunday evening from about 7pm Irish time.

French media reported that voters lined for up to three hours in Montreal in a queue that stretched for over 2km, suggesting an exceptionally high turnout after arguably the most remarkable election campaign in memory.

More than 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers will be on duty for polling day in France, which has been in a state of emergency for more than 18 months after a wave of Islamist attacks that have killed 239 people since January 2015.

Analysts were divided on whether the shooting on Thursday night of officer Xavier Jugele by Karim Cheurfi, who had served 14 years in prison for violent crimes including the attempted murder of two policemen, would affect the vote.

Ms Le Pen moved swiftly to position herself as the hardline candidate on Islamist extremism, calling for France to take back control of its borders from the EU immediately and deport all foreigners on its terror watch list. “This war against us is ceaseless and merciless,” she said, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat. But the prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, angrily accused her of trying to exploit the killing.

Mr Fillon stressed his previous experience and promised an “iron-fisted” approach, saying some politicians “hadn’t taken the full measure of the evil”. Macron also accused his rivals of trying to capitalise on the attack, and urged voters not to give in to fear.

All three candidates cancelled their final campaign events on Friday over security concerns and out of respect for the murdered policeman. Three suspects close to the attacker remain in custody, the Paris prosecutor’s office said on Saturday.

In a further sign of the rising tensions in the country, a man wielding a knife caused widespread panic at the Gare du Nord station in Paris on Saturday. He was quickly arrested and no one was hurt, police said.

Guardian Service