At stake is the future of the European Union, as well as France's labor, immigration and economic policies. The first round of voting in April saw 11 candidates battle it out, which has led to Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron going forward to the second round vote on May 7. It is the first time in six decades that neither the main French right-wing or left-wing parties have had a candidate in the second round. Here's a guide to the whos, whats, and whys of the elections:
Marine Le Pen
Le Pen, who led the National Front, has attracted the most attention in the race. She came in second in the first round vote, with 21.3% of the total ballots. The neo-nationalist has attempted to 'detoxify' a party started by her father Jean-Marie, an alleged anti-Semite who wanted to deport 3 million foreigners, called homosexuality "a biological and social anomaly," and said Nazi-era gas chambers were a "detail of history." Le Pen has broadened her appeal among France's Northern industrial areas by stressing for increased powers of the state, which is a break from the party's traditionally anti-welfare stance. She has also welcomed a number of gay men into the party, including National Front's Vice President Florian Philippot.
The 48-year-old does however support the repeal of same-sex marriage, wants to end "mass immigration," and to reassert French cultural identity through a number of measures that include a ban on dual-nationality for non-Europeans. On foreign affairs, Le Pen advocates for more protectionism and wants to hold a referendum on E.U. membership – potentially causing a "Frexit" that few think the political and economic bloc could survive.
Le Pen announced on Tuesday that she was standing down as leader of the National Front for the rest of the presidential campaign, in what is being seen as a fresh effort to broaden her appeal. The party is also facing potentially damaging investigations into its finances. "I will feel freer, I will be above partisan considerations, it is an important act," she told France 2 television.
The 39-year-old is a social and economic liberal who polls suggest is the favorite to defeat Le Pen in the second round of voting (see below). He was the clear winner in the first round, gaining 24% of the vote. The former economy minister quit the cabinet of current— and deeply unpopular — President François Hollande in 2016 to start his own cross-party political movement called En Marche! (On the Move!).
Macron, who is a former Rothschild banker, is a pro-E.U. evangelical, which stands in direct contrast to his biggest competitor Le Pen. He wants to scale back special wealth taxes, encourage entrepreneurship, cut corporation tax, and relax France's labor laws. He also wants to pump $50 billion into a public investment plan for infrastructure, job training and a shift to renewable energy. He recently told TIME's Vivienne Walt that he is ideologically opposed to Le Pen and hopes to "convince the French people that a positive project and a progressive view is more adapted to our challenges."
The candidate for the centre-right Republicains party once looked like the man to beat, having defeated former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and popular Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé in the Nov. 2016 primaries. After conceding defeat on Sunday, he asked supporters to choose centrist Macron.
Fillon, 62, is a pro-E.U., free-market evangelist whose plans to end the 35-hour workweek, cut half a million in public sector jobs, and drastically reduce public spending (by over $100 billion) has resonated with business leaders. The staunch Catholic is opposed to abortion, surrogacy and voted against same-sex marriage. Like Le Pen, Fillon wants curbs on immigration, calls for an alliance with Russia to fight "Islamic totalitarianism" and wants to strip returning French jihadists of their citizenship.
However, his campaign has been badly hurt by a corruption scandal involving his family (see below). He has dropped in overall polls from first place to third, but it is unclear as to whether he is out of the running.
The 65-year-old firebrand quit the Socialist party after 30 years in 2008 and has now started his own party, France Insoumise (France Unbowed), which has attracted widespread support among the traditional hard-left, including the French Communist Party. He declined to endorse either Le Pen or Macron after coming in fourth, with 19.6% of the total count, in the first round of voting.
The populist left-winger has proposed a $106 billion tax-and-spend economic programme and wants to replace the presidential system with a parliamentary system. He also plans to pull France out of NATO, has supported Russia's military actions in Ukraine and Syria, and would renegotiate the terms or leave the E.U. — another threat to the bloc.
To attract younger voters, he launched his campaign as a hologram in a Paris rally while addressing an audience in Lyon, 310 miles away. His recent climb in the polls has been attributed to his fiery speeches and strong performances in two televised debates, especially when he clashed with Le Pen. "Leave us in peace with religion" he told her on April 4. "We're no obliged to suffer your caprices, your little finds, your way of imposing on us your way of life that is not ours."
The Socialist Party candidate was not favored to win the primaries, but defeated his former boss Manuel Valls to become the party's candidate with Hollande declining to run. He gained only 6.4% of Sunday's ballots, which is one of the worst scores the party has had since its founding more than 50 years ago, and has endorsed Macron.
He was education secretary in Hollande's cabinet, but resigned in 2014 over the government's shift to a more centrist economic stance. His policies include a universal basic income of $795 for all citizens, a reduction in the 35-hour working week and a tax on industrial robots. But his left-leaning policies have failed to win over many of his fellow Socialists, some of whom have defected to Macron. He attempted to build an alliance with Mélenchon, but the plan collapsed — along with his realistic hopes of making the second round, Bloomberg reports.
The other contenders include:
Bordeaux mechanic Philippe Poutou, from the New Anti-Capitalist Party, who became a folk hero for cutting into Le Pen and Fillon for their respective corruption scandals during the April 4 televised debate. He gained 1.1% of the first round vote and abstained from endorsing Macon on Sunday. He says the centrist will not be an effective "bulwark" against the National Front.
Nationalist Francois Asselineau, from the Popular Republic Union party, wants an immediate 'Frexit' from the E.U. if elected— a plan Le Pen describes as "brutal." He won 0.9% of the vote and refused to endorse either candidate.
High-school teacher Nathalie Arthaud of the Workers' Struggle party. According to her website, the far-left politician wants to increase to salaries and pensions, ban companies from making redundancies, and for the "means of productions," like factories and banks, to be put in the "hands of society." After winning 0.6% in Sunday's poll, she declined to endorse Macron. On Twitter, Arthaud said she will cast a blank vote due to her dissatisfaction with either candidate.
The independent candidate Jean Lassalle has been a lawmaker since 2002 and wants to return power to local mayors. He once walked across France for nine months and in 2006 went on hunger strike for 39-days in a bid to stop Japanese firm Toyal from closing a factory in his constituency. He gained 1.2% of the vote and has yet to say who he plans on endorsing.
Solidarity and Progress party's Jacques Cheminade is a former civil servant who wants to abandon the E.U. and NATO and is known for his conspiracy theories. He came in last with 0.2% and told Franceinfo, ahead of Sunday's vote, that he will "certainly not" vote for Le Pen, is considering Macron, but will probably "vote white."
The right-wing Eurosceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, from Stand Up France party, wants to leave NATO, create a higher ethical standards for politicians, end sanctions with Russia and create a Marshall Plan for Africa. He came in fifth with 4.7% of the ballot and has yet to endorse a candidate.
The French unemployment rate (around 10%) is higher than the Eurozone average of 9.5% and more than double the rates in neighboring U.K. and Germany. Youth unemployment is even higher (at around 25%), due in part to the country's rigid labor market and a tax system that makes it expensive for employers to hire or fire full-time employees. The lack of economic prospects is a decisive factor in this race, and it has led some young people to flock to Le Pen. According to a March IFOP poll, the National Front is the most popular among those in the 18-24 age bracket.
France's sluggish economy has been the source of much gloom for the locals. Entrepreneurs and an estimated 60,000 millionaires have left the country due to heavy regulation and high taxes. According to the Economist, former President Jacques Chirac's attempted overhaul of pensions and social security in the '90s was the last massive attempt at reform but it collapsed under a wave of protests. Le Pen's solution is to throw more barriers up and increase social welfare. Fillon laid out an austerity plan while Marcon wants fiscal restraint and deregulation. It's unclear if any of them would have the parliamentary support to carry out significant reforms, if elected.
This has been a hot-button topic since a wave of terror attacks by Islamic extremists killed more than 350 people in 2015, prompting Hollande to put France in an extended state of emergency. As of May 2015, around 1,800 French nationals joined ISIS and other militant groups in Syria and Iraq, according to the Soufan Group. Legitimate fears that the radicalized will launch further atrocities has caused deep cultural rifts in France and the the public's attention has now shifted to issues surrounding national identity, Islamic extremism and immigration.
France is also home to one of the largest Muslim minorities in Europe, many who live in the poorest suburbs of the country's biggest cities. There has been a growing unease towards the country's minority groups since the spate of attacks, which Le Pen has exploited for political gain. Europe's refugee crisis, exacerbated by asylum seekers fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa, has led to France receiving more than 85,000 asylum applications in 2016. The conservative backlash to the latest events April 2016 poll by Le Figaro found that 47% of French citizens felt the Muslim community poses a 'threat' to their national identity.
Personal and financial scandals are rampant in French political life, especially around election season: In 2012, a sex-scandal destroyed former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn's presidential ambitions, and Sarkozy's 2007 divorce, a few months after his election, was widely covered in the French press. The only difference in this year's race is the sheer breadth of disputes, driven by an angry French electorate tired with its political class:
Conservative candidate François Fillon has seen his approval ratings fall after he was put under investigation, and later criminally charged, over allegations that he and his British-born wife, Penelope, embezzled some $720,000 in state funds by setting up fake parliamentary assistant jobs. The ballooning 'Penelope-gate' scandal, which was first revealed in the Canard Enchaîné newspaper, shattered the former Prime Minister's "Mr Clean" image. He has been further tarnished by reports that a political fixer bought him two expensive suits costing more than $13,000. Fillon has remained defiant in the face of calls to withdraw from the race, blaming his "political assassination" on the media and his opponents.
He also had to apologise in March for tweeting a caricature of his rival, Macron, with a hooked-nose, wearing a top hat and carrying a red sickle to cut a cigar. Fillon admitted that it evoked anti-Semitism. Macron is not Jewish but the cartoon seemed to refer to his past job as a Rothschild banker.
Le Pen's legal troubles
Le Pen, who is a member of European Parliament, faces her own investigation over false employment. Brussels' investigators allege that Le Pen misused E.U. funds to pay her bodyguard around $45,000 and her France-based assistants nearly $400,000, which should have only been spent on E.U. parliamentary assistants.
There is also separate inquiries into her use of violent ISIS images during a Twitter spat against a journalist who compared her party to the terrorist group. E.U. lawmakers voted to remove her parliamentary immunity in March, so that French prosecutors could take legal action against her.Le Pen denies all allegations and the accusations seem to have done little to dent her popularity.
But allegations of bigotry still dog the National Front. In March, one of the party's counsellors was suspended after her was caught on a secret camera playing down the systemic murder of Jews during the Holocaust, CNN reports. Le Pen was also criticized by Israel and French politicians in April after she denied that the French state was responsible for rounding up Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps during World War II.
The front-runner had to apologise for calling France's history in Algeria a "crime against humanity" in Feb. After a wave of criticism from right-wing opponents, Macron told a rally that he was "sorry to have offended you, to have hurt you," France 24 reports. Algerians lived under French colonial rule for more than 100 years, and its bloody war for independence is thought to have killed around 1.5 million Algerians.
That month, Macron also had to bat away a sleazy allegation of an extramarital gay affair with Radio France chief executive Mathieu Gallet. "If you're told I lead a double life with Mr Gallet, it's because my hologram has escaped" Macron told supporters — a joke at Melenchon's expense. The centrist candidate married his former high-school teacher Brigitte Trogneux in 2007.
The first-round vote has been regarded as a huge win for French pollsters, who correctly picked the top-two candidates and got the order of the finish for the five main candidates right. The Hill says this might be down to France's polling method where pollsters do not rely on phone interviews.
The 39-year-old Macron is now the projected winner in the polls. An Elabe poll says 64% of voters will go for Macron on May 7 (with Le Pen 28 points behind him), while an Ifop Fiducial projection has given him 60% of the share.
Historically, the winner of the first round has won six of the nine elections since 1965. But the simple two-man horse race has been further clouded by the high number of undecided voters and abstentions— around 10 million did not vote in Sunday's poll. This could be made worse by far-left Mélenchon's refusal to support Macron. The National Front is keen to attract his anti-globalization, hard left voters, the FT reports.
National Assembly elections
The battle does not end if Macron of Le Pen become president. In June, French voters will elect members to France's powerful lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. This election is interesting because whoever the president picks as prime minister tends to come for the party that controls the chamber.
Neither Macron or Le Pen are expected to get such a majority, seeing as the National Front has historically struggled to gain deputies in the 577-National Assembly and the young On The Move! movement has no experience fielding candidates. They are up against the established parties, who are weaker, but have well-oiled networks throughout the country.
What this means is there will likely be a power sharing agreement between the president and prime minister in what is known as cohabitation. This was a painful feature of French political life in the 1980s and 1990s, where the president was effectively reduced to a figurehead. All this suggests that this topsy-turvy race might have a few more surprises up its sleeve.