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French presidential election: What you need to know

Farah Bahgat
April 8, 2022

All eyes are on France as the presidential election begins on Sunday. DW has a roundup of who's running, the key issues, how the rounds of voting work and when to expect the results.

Campaign posters of six presidential candidates
Voters will choose from 12 candidates, but polls suggest only about half of them have a chanceImage: Julien Mattia/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

Campaigns for the French presidential election officially come to an end late Friday.

The vote, starting Sunday, is set to determine who leads the European Union's second-largest economy and the bloc's only permanent UN Security Council member. 

Here's what you need to know:

How does the voting work?

Every five years, French voters directly elect a president through the same voting system that has been in place for generations: Paper ballots cast in person and counted by hand.

With most COVID-19 restrictions lifted in France, even people who test positive for the virus can go to the polls while following health guidelines, which include wearing masks. Equipment will be frequently cleaned, and voting stations are required to let fresh air in for a few minutes every hour.

Voters will choose among 12 candidates in the first round of voting on Sunday. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of votes, the top two candidates will face each other in a runoff election on April 24.

Who are the main candidates?

Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, is running for reelection.

Macron's term has been marked by ups and downs. The so-called yellow vest movement in 2018 was triggered by his business-friendly policies and tax cuts for the wealthy.

With his term coming to an end, he is leading opinion polls.

He seemed to have put aside traditional campaigning — until two weeks ago — and rather focused on diplomatic efforts, most notably with Russia and Ukraine. 

Emmanuel Macron speaks during his first campaign meeting
Macron, 44, wants to raise the retirement age, build new nuclear reactors and boost employment levelsImage: Thomas COEX/AFP

Macron's lead has been shrinking as his 2017 runoff competitor Marine Le Pen has surged in the polls.

In opinion polls, the far-right candidate of the National Rally party is currently coming in second after Macron. Analysts predict that the two will face off again in a second round.

Unlike Macron, Le Pen has been campaigning for months, focusing on inflation and incomes. 

But she has been criticized in Europe for her 2017 stance against the EU and NATO — currently two major players in the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Marine Le Pen speaks as she takes part in the show "10 Minutes pour Convaincre" (10 Minutes to Convince) on French TV
Marine Le Pen, 53, wants to cut taxes on energy and food, invest in nuclear energy and end family reunification policiesImage: Ludovic Marin/REUTERS

In 2017, Le Pen strongly played up fears over Muslim immigration to France. But this year, the fact that Eric Zemmour is in the race is helping soften her image.

Far-right Zemmour, a former media pundit, has several convictions for racist hate speech and wants to deport a million foreigners. He has also promoted white supremacist and neo-Nazi theories. 

According to opinion polls, Zemmour is likely to score around 10% of Sunday's vote, coming fourth after Jean-Luc Melenchon.

A left-wing populist politician, Melenchon is polling at around 16%. His campaign is focused on investing in green energy and taxing the wealthy.

Supporters of of far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon glue a campaign poster of him to a wall
Jean-Luc Melenchon, 70, wants to raise minimum wage, inscribe a 'green rule' in the constitution and phase out nuclear energyImage: Bob Edme/AP Photo/picture alliance

Other candidates include the right-wing Republicans' candidate Valerie Pecresse, who is polling in fourth or fifth (depending on the poll). The Socialist party's candidate and Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, could finish with around 2%.

What are the main issues? 

France's response to the war in Ukraine, strains on the health system triggered by two years of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy are all high among voter concerns.

Tackling a surge in energy and food prices has been at the core of most of the candidates' campaigns. 

War in Ukraine influences French presidential campaign

When will we get the results?

Results of the first round will start trickling in after polls close on Sunday at 8 p.m. (1800 UTC/GMT). 

One candidate could technically win the election in the first round by gaining more than 50% of the vote. However, that would be an unprecedented scenario for France.

Two top contenders will qualify for a runoff election, to be held on April 24.

Edited by: Sean Sinico