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Primer on the French Elections for Americans

by Zander Willoughby | Mar 23, 2017

Living in the secondary capital of Europe (The capital if you ask some, the third capital if you ask others, a waste of money if you ask a lot of Members of the European Parliament) as an American political science student at the Institut d’études politiques, one is steeped in French electoral politics most everyday (I like to play a game when I talk to strangers and it comes up that I’m American; I count how many questions they ask me before they ask about Trump. The current winner is a man asking me directions from his car, he asked 4 whole questions before bringing it up! The average is 2…). After Brexit, our election, the Austrian elections, and last week’s Dutch elections, all eyes are now on the French elections in April/May. Here’s your Primer on the French Elections for Americans:

The System
The French elect their president by universal direct suffrage; i.e. all French citizens over 18 may vote (EU citizens residing in France may vote for municipal and EU elections, but not the president). No electoral college, whoever wins the second tour by the most votes wins. (However, in order to get on the ballot, one needs the signature of 500 regional and municipal leaders. Also, the Sénat is elected by an electoral college of grands électeurs. Remember that sometime a French person comes at you for our process).

The election will take place in two tours. The first on 23 April and the second two weeks later on 7 May. In the first tour, there will be at least 11 candidates for the Président de la république. Assuming that no-one wins a full majority in the first tour, for the second tour, there will only be the top two candidates from the first election (which will be very important this year).

The Stakes
Brexit, Trump, Syria, Russia, Migrants, Refugees, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, Climate Change, Free Trade, Unemployment, the EU, etc. The French will be deciding what kind of country the want to be and what the future of Europe will look like. With Euroscepticism (Those skeptical of the European Union, i.e. the Le Pens, Farages, Wilders of the world) and anti-Americanism on the rise, two things historically antithetical, the 2017 election will be consequential.

The Candidates
I said that there will be at least 11 candidates on the ballot. In reality, there are five main candidates.  In  actuality,  there’s  one  versus  anyone  who  can  beat  her.

Therefore, I’ll give a brief overview of the five who really have a chance of winning with heavy help from this BBC Article (talking points). The main candidates, in order of left wing to right wing are: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Benoît Hamon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon, and Marine Le Pen.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Parti de Gauche (Left Party)

Mélenchon, the farthest left of the five, is an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) and a former European federalist (One who wants Europe to become one federalist country) who is now calling for France to pull out of the EU, aka, Frexit.

The main four points of his platform (As per the aforementioned BBC article):

  1. Voting from age of 16 and a "Sixth Republic" to replace the existing presidential system
  2. Constituent assembly to acquire greater powers, voted in by proportional representation
  3. Zero homelessness and full reimbursement for prescribed health care
  4. Recognised burn-out as an occupational disease

Benoît Hamon, Socialist Party

Hamon, the French Bernie Sanders according to one of his interns at a bar, is the Socialist Party candidate; the same party as François Hollande (Current president [Sorry to insult your intelligence]), but beat Manuel Valls (Former PM under Valls) in the primaries. Hamon pulled 31.5% in a poll of students at SciencesPo Strasbourg (My school) and is the usual replacement for American expats still feeling the Bern.

Thank you, the BBC:

  1. To legalise cannabis and tax the wealth on robots that take the jobs of humans
  2. To scrap a 2016 law making it easier to hire and fire workers
  3. A basic income plan to boost salaries of those earning less than €2,185 per month
  4. The unemployed would receive up to €600 per month and those on the minimum wage around €200
  5. Renewable energy to form 50% of electricity by 2025 and pull out of nuclear energy by 2050

Emmanuel Macron, En Marche (On the Move)

Macron’s candidacy and new party, En Marche, serves as an alternative for those who are terrified of France’s wave of right-wing populism and also skeptical of Hollande’s Socialist Party’s policies. Macron is said to be neither-right-nor-left but is usually described to me as being centre-right. To exemplify this point, Macron has both been an investment banker who spends a lot of time in New York AND an economic adviser and economic minister to François Hollande. Polling says that if the 39 year old makes it to the second tour against Le Pen, he’ll beat her (I’ll touch on this possibility at the end).

Cue the BBC talking points:

  1. €50bn (£43bn; $53bn) public investment plan to cover job-training, exit from coal and shift to renewable energy, infrastructure and modernisation
  2. Reimbursement of full cost of glasses, dentures and hearing aids
  3. Big cut in corporation tax and more leeway for companies to renegotiate 35-hour week
  4. Cut in jobless rate to 7% (now 9.7%)
  5. Ban on mobile phone use in schools for under-15s and a €500 culture pass for 18 year olds

François Fillon, The Republicans

Though the French Republican party is also the centre-right party as in the U.S., remember that the French political spectrum and the American spectrum do not line up (i.e. namely that they recognise the fundamental human right to access to healthcare). Fillon’s candidacy is essentially over due to scandal, he’s still polling in third place. Fillon is currently under formal investigation for creating fake jobs for his Welsh wife and two of his children while he was in the Parliament, between his wife and two of his kids, the ‘ghost-jobs’ brought in around 985,000€. The French political satire weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, uncovered earlier this month that Fillon took a 50,000€ zero-interest loan from a Mr Lacharrière in 2013 without reporting it.

The BBC:

  1. To scrap half a million public sector jobs and the 35-hour work week
  2. Removing the wealth tax (ISF)
  3. To strip jihadists returning from the wars in Iraq or Syria of French nationality
  4. Requiring parents in receipt of social allowances to agree to a "parental responsibility contract", to tackle children's absenteeism or behaviour "disrespectful of the values of the [French] republic"
  5. Lifting EU sanctions on Russia and helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defeat so-called Islamic State (IS).

Marine Le Pen, Front National (FN)
Le Pen

Le Pen is the current front runner known for her adage La France est pour les français (France is for the French). The populist MEP took over the Front National from her father (Who is no longer in the party because he feels she’s made it too racist) in 2011.  Le  Pen  is  effectively  France’s  Donald  Trump,  except  she’s  an   experienced

lawyer-politician with years of experience and a dedicated long-time following. Le Pen is also under investigation from the European Parliament for ghost-jobs similar to Fillon, misusing Parliament funds (Using money for her EU-level party for her national party), and recently lost her EP immunity by vote in the Parliament after tweeting out pictures and videos of ISIL beheadings. It is assumed that Le Pen will make it to the second tour where it is also assumed that many will begrudgingly join forces with whoever opposes her should France decide to reject populist Islamophobic isolationist anti-liberal populism (Yes, that’s as objective as I can write it).

A final shoutout to the BBC:

  1. Negotiation with Brussels on a new EU, followed by a referendum
  2. "Automatic" expulsion of illegal immigrants and legal immigration cut to 10,000 per year
  3. "Extremist" mosques closed and priority to French nationals in social housing
  4. Retirement age fixed at 60 and 35-hour week assured

I hope this helps! I hope I’ve given a good overview without being too trivialising. The 2017 French election will be consequential not only for France, but for the future of Europe and the Western World. As a parting note, I am not a journalist, nor do I hold myself to any journalistic standards regarding objectivity and fairness. I’ve done my best not to cloud my primer with my personal opinions but it’s probably apparent that I’m biased. If you have any questions / comments / corrections, feel free to comment below or shoot me a message!

Zander E. Willoughby ’18 is a Political Science & French major & Peace Studies minor, and a former Multicultural Affairs Programmer, Student Senate Vice-President, Model U.N. Secretary-General and more. He is currently studying in Strasbourg, France at the Institut d'Études Politiques at Université de Strasbourg. His future plans include working in International Relations or International Law, hopefully within the U.N. system.

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