• Supporters of French presidential election candidate Francois Fillon during a campaign rally at the Porte de Versailles in Paris, France, 09 April 2017. (EPA)
Immigration, the European Union and rejuvenating the economy are the key challenges facing all candidates in France's presidential election commencing April 23.
By
Melissa Matheson, Christophe Mallet

20 Mar 2017 - 8:22 PM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2017 - 9:20 PM

France will head to the polls not once, but twice, to decide their next president. And whoever wins will take over from the most unpopular president in French history - Francois Hollande.

The second European country to vote in the ‘super year of elections’, the French election doesn’t start until April 23, but has already seen plenty of drama with allegations of fraud surrounding right-wing Republican leader Francois Fillon – once the favourite to be the next President.

Also in the mix is anti-immigration and anti-Islam National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and former economic adviser to President Hollande turned independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron – who is now seen as a favourite with political analysts.

Running for the Socialist Party is Benoît Hamon, described by his opponents as a “left-wing rebel”, who beat Prime Minister Manuel Valls for the party’s nomination. He has proposed a universal basic income for all French citizens, but is unlikely to make it to the second round of voting.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon had been written-off by many, but is experiencing a late surge in popularity. He grabbed attention with his hologram appearance, when he appeared simultaneously at rallies in Lyon and Paris.

The economy, European Union and immigration are key issues this election.

French expats in Australia and abroad go to the polling stations

The two-round voting system

Because the French presidential election is a two-round system, it opens up the field for a vast range of candidates. Or as a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Monash University, Dr Ben Wellings, puts it: a “diversity of views”.

“Anyone and everyone who has enough money could put their hat in the ring in the first round,” he said.

After the first round of voting on April 23, the two candidates with the most votes will move into the second round, and the French people will vote again on May 7.

This system allows the French people to concentrate on key policy issues, according to the director of the European Union Centre at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Professor Bruce Wilson.

“I like the French system because when you get your two candidates after the first round you’ve got two weeks to have that very focused debate about what works,” he said.

“You know what you’re getting after the second round of the presidential election.”

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The Le Pen factor

“There’s a family dynasty there – her father founded the National Front and himself made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2002,” Professor Wilson said.

“Take Pauline Hanson out of the equation [with One Nation] and I think it would go the way of the Katter party. She certainly has traction in very particular parts of the country.

“The same goes with Le Pen. It’s more to do with these issues of homogeneity.”

Professor Wilson points out that, around the world, cosmopolitan cities are more likely to reject far-right views, as opposed to voters in remote areas.

“Paris is a melting pot of people from all over Europe, from all over the world,” he said.

Marine Le Pen refuses to wear a headscarf

President Trump and Populism

“There was certainly talk last year after Brexit and after Trump about the likelihood that seemingly there would be a wave of right-wing governments across Europe, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen at all,” Professor Wilson said.

“Nonetheless, the elections are interesting. France is the most interesting of the three this year.

While the Leave campaign for Brexit focused on immigration, Dr Wellings says it was “more like a tipping point rather than a trigger” in France.

“All the signs were there,” he said. “People will resist the scale and pace of immigration or immigration at all,” he said, pointing out that the Euro zone crisis, austerity crisis, and financial collapse of Greece have all played a part in France.

“It’s not just the white, working class man – it’s also the managerial class,” Dr Wellings said of the growing populist sentiment.

“The signs have been there for the last 10 years and they’ve been growing. Something like the referendum or Trump’s election allow those views to be expressed in ways that may surprise people.”

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned about the rise of populism when he visited Australia this month.

“Even in Australia populism is alive,” he said.

“Far from being the majority, but they are alive, they are developing, they are using propaganda, using fears, anguish, worries, things like safety, threat of terrorism, migrations, fear of losing the socio-economic model in place - all this are themes far right political parties use extensively.

“We talk a lot about it because of the presidential elections in France, but if you look at other elections other than the French ones... even in Germany, which was a bit less impacted, we can see the far-right climbing there too, Italy too. Most countries are impacted.

“We need to be careful. It is a threat for our democracies. It is a step back in history. It’s the illusion that it just needs to close borders, stop any exchanges between countries to find a solution – it’s just not true.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Australia

Brexit and the European Union

The day after Brexit, the top Google search in Britain was “what is the EU?”

But Professor Wilson says that problem is not limited to the UK.

“One of the problems for the EU is if you picked a bunch of people in France and Malta and asked them what the EU is they wouldn’t know,” he said. “It’s the same all over Europe.”

Dr Wellings says the EU adds another layer of frustration for many voters in France already disillusioned by politics.

“Political parties are experiencing difficulties in relating to the electorate at the national level but that’s even more difficult for the EU which is seen as more remote,” he said.

“It’s hard for people to see how they can affect change in policies they don’t like. You don’t vote out the government like you do at the national level.

“It’s usually claimed that it’s not democratic, but it’s insufficiently representative.”

Nicknamed the “Innovation Union”, the EU promotes science and industry across countries, Professor Wilson says.

“There’s a very clear embracing of what they call the knowledge economy,” he said.

Economy is key, but don’t mention immigration

“The protection of French workers, how changes to the protection of French workers are handled will be a key issue,” Professor Wilson said.

But as election day nears, Dr Wellings says Le Pen’s opponents will do their best to avoid debating immigration because that’s when the National Front leader will stand out.

“I think that people [in France] are quite aware of what’s going on in other parts of the world,” he said.

“The centre-left and even parts of the centre-right will not want to see another Brexit or another Trump – we really don’t want to see a neo-fascist like Marine Le Pen in charge of France and its nuclear weapons; it’s way worse than Brexit.”

Don’t rule out Fillon

Both Dr Wellings and Professor Wilson tip Macron as the favourite to be the next President of France.

“He’s a bit like the Justin Trudeau of France,” Dr Wellings said.

“He worked in the Socialist Hollande Government but he’s not running as a socialist; he says he’s independent."

“He’s not identifying with these two major parties,” Professor Wilson said. “He’s got a real level of charisma, he’s able to engage.

“If you just look as his dealings with Theresa May and post-Trump, that gives some people optimism.”

But even though Fillon has been accused of using public funds to pay his wife hundreds of thousands of Euros for fake parliamentary jobs, the Republican leader is still in with a chance this election.

“I wouldn’t rule out Fillon,” Professor Wilson said. “If he gets into the second round he’s got the full support of the centre-right behind him.”

Tune in to SBS French Radio for detailed profiles of each of the candidates in the lead up to the French presidential election.

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