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France’s Chaotic Election Could Put the Future of Europe at Risk

It’s Marine Le Pen against the rest.

France’s 2017 presidential election is set to be like no other in the modern era.

As supporters of the center-right Republican party prepare to vote in their primary next month, there are at least 12 declared candidates, with President Francois Hollande and his former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron shaping up to join the fray. Though not all of the contenders will make it to April, the race is wide open with far-right leader Marine Le Pen making the running with her attacks on the European Union as voters’ satisfaction with the bloc plummets.

For the first time since Charles de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 ushered in the Fifth Republic, both France’s two main political parties are holding primary contests, and Hollande is the first incumbent to reach such depths of unpopularity.

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Nicolas Sarkozy is the first former head of state to try and reclaim the job. Though he faces a battle even to secure the Republican nomination against Alain Juppe, a 71-year-old moderate who is the bookmakers’ favorite to edge out Le Pen for the ultimate prize.

Polls have consistently shown that the National Front’s Le Pen is the strong favorite to win the most votes on the first ballot, as the French seek a leader to shake the country out of its economic malaise. While Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie sneaked into the second round on the National Front ticket in 2002, it’s the first time the anti-euro party has been a front-runner.

What’s the worst that could happen?

If the French center ground fails to hold out against Le Pen’s advance, the future of the European Union is potentially at stake.

The most reassuring scenario for investors would see the moderate front-runner Juppe see off Sarkozy to claim the center-right Republican nomination and then canter to a victory against Le Pen in May’s runoff as voters converge on the mainstream candidate.

Such a result would bolster the political partnership between France and Germany at the heart of the EU as it embarks on negotiations over Britain’s exit from the bloc.

But a Sarkozy victory in the primary would blow the race wide open.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy was president from 2007 to 2012

Photographer: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

It could lead to a runoff between the most extreme Republican and Le Pen, testing left-wing voters’ commitment to stopping the National Front leader. Or it could split the first round ballots enough to allow a vulnerable candidate like Hollande or the left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon through to face the National Front leader. One Odoxa poll showed that if Hollande manages to make it to the second round, he would lose by 54 percent to 46 percent to Le Pen, who has promised a referendum on whether France should leave the EU.

Some kind of market-wrenching outcome isn’t probable but can’t be ruled out, said Gilles Moec, chief European economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London.

“The world has become a very cold place where a lot of what was not supposed to go wrong has gone wrong recently,” Moec said.

What about their policy plans?

Juppe, Sarkozy and all of their rivals on the right agree on cutting spending, taxes and generally easing labor laws. Both front-runners want to ditch France’s tax on personal assets over 1.3 million euros, cut unemployment benefits and end France’s 35-hour work week.

Macron is starting to set out a philosophy that fits with his free-market economic instincts though he’s yet to publish a full program. Le Pen wants to lower the legal retirement age to 60 and create “intelligent protection” against “unfair” competition from China and Eastern Europe. But the main concern for investors is her plan to withdraw France from the euro zone.

Banks, which featured so prominently in the 2012 presidential campaign with Hollande proclaiming finance as his “enemy,” have barely featured this time round, though Sarkozy has criticized the current president for not doing enough to win business from the city of London.

When does voting start?

Republican supporters will have the first say in the process, choosing their candidate over two rounds on Nov. 20 and 27. The Socialists will hold their own primary in January and the presidential election begins on April 23.

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The top two candidates in the first round presidential ballot go through to the run off two weeks later and parliamentary elections follow, also over two rounds, in June. With the president elected directly by voters across the nation, all votes are worth the same in the French system, with no such thing as a swing state like in the U.S.

The Republican winner will become the favorite

Whoever wins the Republican vote will immediately be tipped to defeat Le Pen in the runoff, making the primary almost as important as the election itself. Any French voter can participate, provided they sign a document declaring they share the party’s values and pay 2 euros ($2.24) to help cover costs.

Polls have consistently showed Juppe as the leader of seven candidates with Sarkozy close behind. They also indicate that Juppe is more popular with the overall electorate than with his own party.

So Juppe and Francois Fillon, both former prime ministers who are challenging Sarkozy, have invited disillusioned Socialists to come and support them. The more people who heed that call, the slimmer Sarkozy’s chances.

Who are the Republican hopefuls?

Alain Juppe

The mayor of Bordeaux is consistently rated the most popular politician in France. A late September survey by BVA showed 47 percent of voters want him to play a major role in the country’s future.

Alain Juppe.

Alain Juppe has been a very popular mayor of Bordeaux

Photographer: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

Expressly pitching himself to voters who are more European than nationalist and abhor the National Front, Juppe regularly says he wants to “appease and unite” France. Like all candidates on the right, Juppe is pledging economic reform – tax and spending cuts as well as changes to labor law.

Nicolas Sarkozy

The 61 year-old is making his third run at the presidency and so far he’s one for two. He won in 2007 promising to fight for “the France that gets up early,” but was ejected in 2012, his reputation ravaged by Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis.

Since then he has become an increasingly divisive figure, with tirades against immigration and in defense of traditional cultural values. In the BVA poll, just 19 percent of voters wanted to see him return to government. That could still be enough to squeak through if the primary voters are mainly from the party base.

Francois Fillon

After serving as Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, the self-professed Thatcherite is now waging a no-holds-barred campaign to derail his former boss’s comeback.

Francois Fillon.

Francois Fillon has been polling badly.

Photographer: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

The darling of business and popular with Republican lawmakers, he trails the front-runners and sometimes even places fourth behind his former Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire. His only real hope is that the pollsters have got it wrong.

After the Republicans vote, then what?

The other candidates will take their cue from the Republicans.

A Juppe victory may limit the prospects for moderates like Macron and Francois Bayrou, who won 19 percent in the first round in 2007. A Sarkozy victory on the other hand would encourage them to make a bid for the middle ground. Also contesting that space could be Hollande, who has promised to state his intentions by December.

“The choice on the right will be a determining factor,” said Thierry Pech, head of the Terra Nova think tank. “If it’s Sarkozy, then there is a vast territory in the center that is ripe for picking.”

Who else is in the running?

From left, Marine Le Pen, Manuel Valls, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron.
From left, Marine Le Pen, Manuel Valls, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron.
Photographs: Bloomberg

Francois Hollande

The 62-year-old is more unpopular than any president of the Fifth Republic and faces the indignity of an unprecedented primary challenge in January -- former industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, has already said he intends to seek the Socialist nomination.

Nonetheless Hollande and his allies see a path to victory: With Sarkozy as the candidate on the right, the electorate will be polarized and Hollande can position himself as the steady hand to guide France through the political storm.

Polls suggest he won’t get past the first round.

Emmanuel Macron

The 38-year-old former banker has stopped short of declaring his candidacy so far, though he has launched a campaign to change France in its election year. Popular with young people and top executives, the fair-haired, blue-eyed reformist says he’s inspired by the way the Podemos grass roots movement has managed to revive democratic engagement in Spain. He may need to be, with no traditional party structure to support him and limited funding.

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Manuel Valls

The current prime minister said Oct. 2 that the left can still win in 2017, though he didn’t say whether that meant Hollande. He has never denied his ambitions and is likely to step in should his boss bow out.

Marine Le Pen

Since taking over the party founded by her father in 2011, Le Pen has moderated its message, avoiding racist and xenophobic remarks while maintaining demands for France to exit the euro and reduce immigration. The result has been steadily rising popularity. Polls give Le Pen between 25 percent and 30 percent in the first round, making her the candidate to beat.

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