Far-right populist Marine Le Pen is tipped to clear the first hurdle in the race for France's presidency. It seems that she can only be stopped in the second round of voting. But by whom? Bernd Riegert reports.
French voters will be going to the polls this Sunday with the memory of Thursday's deadly attack in Paris still fresh in their minds. All candidates, from left to right, cancelled their final campaign appearances following the incident. They are all calling for police and investigative authorities to be boosted. The right-wing populist Marine Le Pen accused the Socialist government of having failed in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve in turn accused Le Pen of exploiting the terror threat for the purposes of her campaign.
Surveys indicate that, after the fear of economic decline, voters are most worried about security and the threat posed by terrorism. There are no opinion polls recent enough to have measured voter sentiment following the most recent attack, which targeted police officers in the heart of Paris. The state of emergency imposed in France after the Islamist attacks in Paris in November 2015 is still in force.
Many undecided voters
The race for France's presidency is wide open. The latest polls predict that four candidates out of the 11 candidates have a realistic chance of advancing to the decisive May 7 runoff. Two candidates, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, who founded a new party, have both been touted as favorites for the last several weeks. Some polls give Le Pen a slight edge; others give it to Macron. It is a neck-and-neck race. But far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon, the only representative of an established party, also have a decent chance of advancing. The two are just 2 or 3 percentage points behind front-runners Le Pen and Macron. That is well within the margin of error for such polling.
Election researcher Stephane Wahnich warned in a recent DW interview that nothing was certain. "We have many undecided voters in France. About a quarter of all voters have said that they will not decide until election day. That means that we are asking people who they will vote for even though they have yet to make up their minds." Wahnrich complains that France's voting public is no longer stable. "Our society is radically changing. This makes it difficult to come up with reliable projections. When you consider that fact, you have to conclude that opinion polls for this election are completely overrated."
Many possible combinations
Far-right populist Le Pen lost out in the first round of France's last presidential election in 2012. This time it seems certain that she will advance to the runoff. The ruling Socialist party of departing - and extremely unpopular - President Francois Hollande is playing no role whatsoever in the election. That is also something completely new in French politics. The country's political left is more divided than ever before. On the other hand, the rise of far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is especially popular among young French voters for his radical anti-EU slogans and calls for 100 percent taxation on the rich, is rather astonishing. Melenchon utterly rejects globalization and free-trade: "All trade deals that devastate the signatory countries must be stopped."
The political scientist Alfred Gosser gave the German public-service radio station Deutschlandfunk the following reason for Melenchon's rise: "It makes sense that many young people are excited about the idea that they can take part in a real revolution - in this case by voting, even though the rest of the leftist candidates are a bunch of losers. The Socialist party candidate is such a loser that Melenchon has totally overtaken him, and he likely won't even get 10 percent of the vote."
Le Pen wants out of the EU and NATO
The far-right leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, is employing the same tactics used by US President Donald Trump and other populists. She is playing on fear, pushing isolationism and promising a return to the supposedly good old days. "National borders will be restored!" Le Pen repeatedly exclaims to cheering crowds at her campaign events. She also wants to completely end all immigration - legal and illegal. "Look at the world; it is changing before your very eyes. This is our opportunity!"
Le Pen is intent on leaving the EU and NATO. But the far-right candidate is by no means alone. The only candidate running a pro-European campaign is centrist Emmanuel Macron - he is a former Socialist, and at 39, by far the youngest candidate in the race. "I am defending a Europe of sovereign states. I cannot leave the idea of sovereignty to the extreme right and the extreme left and their lies," said Macron with his wonted flowery eloquence during a speech in Berlin this January.
Ditching establishment parties
The conservative Republican party candidate, Francois Fillon, has lost a lot of voter support. Once seen as a shoo-in to reach the runoff, Fillon has been badly hurt by scandals revolving around government salary payments to family members for work they never did. Fillon presents himself as a euroskeptic and claims that Germany's budget policies are one reason for France's economic woes.
"The Germans cannot simply hang on to their budget surpluses while French soldiers risk their lives in the Sahel fighting terrorism and Islamism. The Germans must accept the fact that they have to participate in more military operations and share European responsibility," said Fillon in a presidential debate on French television. European parliamentarian Marine Le Pen of the National Front is also being dogged by a scandal involving her alleged misuse of EU funds; it has, however, not appeared to cost her support.
In the end: President Macron?
Any number of combinations for the runoff are possible heading into Sunday's first round of voting. At the moment, the most probable of these is a Macron/Le Pen showdown. Should that be the case, current polls suggest that Emmanuel Macron would easily defeat Le Pen, winning 65 percent of the vote to her 35 percent. However, there is absolutely no guarantee for the "electoral success of the rational," as Alfred Gosser puts it.
Stephane Wahnich also remains cautious. "If polls continue to suggest that Emmanuel Macron will be the clear victor in a runoff with Le Pen, and if the media pushes that narrative, things might actually turn out quite different," Wahnich warned in his DW interview. "Prognoses that predict Macron as the clear winner could lead many potential Macron voters to skip the second-round vote. As a political newcomer, Macron does not have a voter base that he can count on. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen and her National Front have a very faithful voter base. We could be in for a big surprise, and Marine Le Pen could be elected president."
Voter participation in the 2012 election was 80 percent, which means 35 million people cast ballots. This time around it is predicted that the figure will drop to 65 percent. That makes predictions very difficult, too. Businessman Frederic Coudray told DW that many French voters were fed up with the country's established political system. "The mood was never this bad. People are sick of it. They are all complaining. They want a new president. Here in the countryside, people are convinced that politicians in Paris have forgotten them." Frederic Coudray votes in the village of Donzy, where voting results traditionally reflect those of France in its entirety. The first projections from the four-way race on Sunday are expected around 8 pm local time (1800 UTC), when polls close.