France Votes for Presidential Finalists After Tight CampaignBy , , and
Four leading candidates offer radically different visions
Top two of those will compete in a runoff vote on May 7
French voters headed to the polls Sunday to select two candidates for the presidential runoff, an election that will determine how far the populist wave can go in Europe.
After a campaign that has remade the nation’s political landscape, four candidates with radically different visions are in a position to qualify for the next round. They are Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader who wants to pull France out of Europe’s single currency; Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, who wants to remake the rules governing monetary union; Francois Fillon, the Republican former prime minister who proposes tough economic reforms; and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist pro-European contesting his first-ever election.
“For weeks, the French have been stating their frustration with an unsatisfactory campaign,” pollster Bruno Jeanbart said in a note for the Fondation Jean Jaures. “Ultimately they have to choose between four drastically different candidates with almost identical chances of success.”
The campaign has been long by French standards, kicking off in earnest last September as the Republicans held their first-ever primary contest, and has overturned traditional French politics. Of the two parties that have run France for the past half-century, the governing Socialists have been reduced to an also-ran; their candidate, Benoit Hamon, was polling in the single digits. The Republicans, led by Fillon, trailed in third place for much of the race.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. Paris time and will close at 7 p.m. in rural areas and 8 p.m. in big cities. Results will be released starting at 8 p.m. Sunday and the top two finishers of the 11 candidates will go into a runoff that will be decided on May 7. The weather is largely sunny across the country.
Macron voted along with his wife Brigitte in the northern resort of Le Touquet around 10.30 a.m., while Hamon cast his ballot in Trappes, in the western suburbs of Paris. Le Pen voted in Henin-Beaumont, her stronghold in northern France. Fillon and Melenchon voted in Paris.
By 5 p.m., 69.4 percent of registered French voters had cast their ballot, according to the Interior Ministry. That’s just shy of the 70.6 percent at the same point in 2012. The final turnout rate could reach 81 percent, pollster Ifop estimated. In 2012, the participation rate in the first round was 79.48 percent.
The ballot is being held amid high security, with around 50,000 police officers deployed throughout the country, helped by municipal staff. France has been under a state of emergency since November 2015 following several deadly terrorist attacks. Tension further increased after a lone-wolf attacker killed a policeman and wounded two others during a shooting on the Champs-Elysees in Paris Thursday evening.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday in an interview with the Associated Press that the incident will “probably help” Le Pen because she is “strongest on borders and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
Runners and Riders
Macron, 39, became the front-runner even though the party he founded is barely over a year old and he has never before held elected office. Multiple polls in the run-up to Sunday’s vote suggested that Le Pen is jostling with him for first place. Le Pen, 48, has moved her father’s National Front from unacceptable in polite society to the center of the conversation -- if still holding anti-immigration and anti-euro positions.
Fillon, 63, lost an early lead in the polls after a legal tussle over whether he hired his wife for a parliamentary staff job for which she did no work. Melenchon, 65 and from the extreme left, unexpectedly moved into fourth place in part because his campaign featured extensive use of social media, not to mention innovations such as appearances by hologram and a video game. That late surge in support pushed French bond yields close to a four-year high.
Before polling was suspended by law on Friday, Bloomberg’s composite of French polls showed Macron on 24.5 percent support and Le Pen in second place with 22.5 percent. While Fillon and Melenchon have the backing of 19.5 percent and 18.5 percent of the electorate respectively, the margins of error leave room for an upset. Hamon was at 7 percent.
The French election will give the clearest indication yet if the voter rebellion that prompted the U.K.’s Brexit vote and Trump’s elevation to the White House resonates in Europe’s core.
There are signs the populist wave is faltering elsewhere: voters in the Netherlands opted for Prime Minister Mark Rutte over Geert Wilders last month after Wilders’s anti-EU Freedom Party led for much of the campaign; he is not included in talks on forming a coalition. In Austria, a pro-European faced down a challenge by the far right for the presidency in December, while five months before German elections, Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany party is riven by internal dissent.
The French election results could be so close that it may not be immediately clear which two candidates qualify for the runoff, campaign officials for Le Pen and Fillon said, with the assumption being that Macron would qualify. Even so, all surveys during the campaign suggested that Le Pen would eventually lose to any rival in the second round.
Here’s a brief rundown of what happens when, in Paris’s time zone:
- 8 a.m. Sunday: polls opened in mainland France
- 12 p.m. Sunday: Interior Ministry released first details of turnout
- 5 p.m. Sunday: Interior Ministry updates turnout figures
- 7 p.m. Sunday: polls close outside major cities, counting begins
- 8 p.m. Sunday: Final polls close. Both the Interior Ministry and pollsters who participate in counts publish preliminary results. Historically these numbers have immediately showed who the finalists were, though races have rarely been this close, with this many candidates. Pollsters, among others, have struggled to cope with the tightness of the race and the high proportion of undecideds.
- Results will roll in throughout the evening, but how long is anyone’s guess. Pollsters say Sunday’s final result may take hours after polling places shut their doors.